Sunday, November 29, 2009


"What are one's ethical obligations," wonders a reader from Columbus, Ohio, "when someone else is doing something wrong?"

My reader was driving along a fairly busy two-lane road, dutifully observing the posted 35-miles-per-hour speed limit. Up ahead of him he saw three people - two men and a toddler - start to cross.

"They were crossing the road roughly 75 yards away from the nearest crosswalk," my reader writes, noting that there was a traffic light at the crosswalk but not where they were.

"I saw them, but did not slow down or stop to let them cross the road," he writes. "They continued to walk, until they realized that I was not going to stop for them. So they stopped."

As he drove past them, the older of the men yelled something at my reader, who slammed on his brakes and got out of his car. Harsh words ensued on both sides.

The older man yelled at my reader for not letting them cross the road. When my reader pointed out that the three were not crossing at the crosswalk and therefore did not have the right of way, the gentleman accused him of putting the child in danger - when, in my reader's view, that is exactly what the two men themselves had done.

When my reader asked if he was attempting to teach the child to cross the street outside of the crosswalks, the older man called him an anatomically related expletive. My reader got back in his car and drove away.

Having cooled off, he still believes that, if pedestrians are going to cross outside of a crosswalk, it is their obligation to pick a time to cross that doesn't interfere with traffic.

"Did I have any obligation to stop and let them cross," he asks, "given that they were jaywalking?"

I agree with my reader that the two adults should have walked the extra 75 yards to the crosswalk before crossing the street. It would have been the best way to teach a young child how to cross a street, not to mention the most legal way to cross and the safest: Teaching a little boy to assume that cars will stop for him no matter when and where he may decide to cross a street could lay the groundwork for a tragedy.

But that's not the question my reader asked. He wants to know if he had any obligation to stop to let the jaywalkers pass, and here I don't agree with him: I believe that he should have stopped.

That he had the right of way is relevant from a legal point of view, but ethically it's beside the point. The fact is that for a very minor gain - the chance to teach the jaywalkers a lesson in traffic law - he took a very substantial risk. If he had misjudged the distance or his speed, or if the little boy or one of the other pedestrians had happened to slip or stumble, the results could have been catastrophic.

Since my reader had enough spare time to stop and challenge the man who yelled at him, it's clear that he wasn't rushing to some urgent appointment, and the fact that nobody rear-ended him when he slammed on his brakes to do so suggests that traffic wasn't heavy enough to make it dangerous to slow for the jaywalkers. He didn't let them pass simply because he was annoyed that they were abusing the right of way - and that's no excuse for a potential tragedy.

The right thing for my reader to do was to slow down, gritting his teeth at the injustice of it all, and let them cross. To endanger a child in order to prove his point that the other men were endangering a child doesn't pass the basic ethical requirement of proportionality. If he wanted to challenge the jaywalkers, the time to do so was after he had stopped for them, not after he had blown by them. By then their minor ethical lapse had been eclipsed by his major one.

c.2009 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)


M. Lawrence said...

I believe the actual correct term for the reader who refused to stop for the pedestrians and then confronted them in a verbal "Who's right?" battle is: "jerk"
Jeff, you said it as calmly as it can be said. To prove his legal right, he completely ignored the ethical right. The men could have been deaf, from another country, lost and distracted - anything - but nothing that warrants the driver's attitude of "I have the right of way even if it kills somebody." My advice that won't be taken is: stay on 35mph roads. You're the kind that road rage incidents are made of.

Anonymous said...

Gosh, Jeffrey, your reader must not live in one of the "peaceful" towns or cities in the U.S. in which persons who were treated like your reader treated these pedestrians, would as likely have been beaten or, as unjustified as this next reaction would be, it is common in many cities to have your angry words like your readers' reacted to by even being shot with the guns that many people carry! Being in the right is not always something you can react to the other party by slamming on your brakes and initiating an argument. What century has your reader been living in? M. Lawrence said it better than I did, but we both agree your reader is in the wrong.

Charlie Seng
Lancaster, SC

S. said...

Your reader is in error. It is always the driver's responsibility to keep an eye out for pedestrians. "Right of way" is never an absolute right that can be asserted over others.

Yes, the pedestrians were wrong in jaywalking, but that in no way absolves him of his own obligations. (This is true both ethically and legally; right of way is not a legal defense for hitting a pedestrian.) Sorry, but he was entirely wrong here himself.

Shmuel Ross
Brooklyn, NY

Bill Jacobson said...

While your driver is correct that the vehicle would have right of way in this scenario in Ohio that is not true in all states. Pedestrians always have the right of way in California for instance.

Your driver may well have "taught these people a lesson" by killing one or more of them. Hopefully the driver will learn this lesson before he "teaches" the next jaywalker to be more careful.

The jaywalkers are in the wrong and its a terrible lesson to be teaching their kids but the jaywalker's wrong would be jaywalking - a citation. The driver was flirting with felony homicide. The gravity of their infractions does not compare.

And how does one live with themselves after teaching someone a lesson by killing their kid? Absolutely shameless.

William Jacobson
Cypress, CA

Nicole P. said...

This is a good thing to remember living in Boston where right of way is a suggested practice and typically the streets are every man for himself. Regardless of how other people behave, if your reader wanted to act ethically the right thing would have been to stop. I can't help thinking he was looking for righteous justification even though he knew he was in the wrong.