Sunday, June 03, 2012

Just because it's legal, is it ethical?

Early each morning during the school year, a big yellow school bus tries to maneuver the tight corner in front of my house. On-street parking is legal on both sides of the street, so there are times when it's particularly difficult for a big yellow school bus to maneuver its way around parked cars to make its way around the corner.

We can tell when it's a particularly challenging morning because we begin to hear the back-up beeps that large vehicles like big yellow school buses make when they attempt to back up, and the bus driver beeps his horn signaling that he's stuck.

While most neighbors know not to park their cars on both sides of this corner so large vehicles (fire trucks also have a way of getting stuck), parking remains legal on both sides of the street.

Recently, the owner of a 1990s blue sedan has decided to park regularly in the spot that is the direct culprit for making corner maneuvers tough. For several mornings, the driver of the big yellow school bus tried to navigate his way through the narrow corner passageway. Traffic piled up behind the bus streaming down a one-way side street, but on most of these days the bus made it through.

That success came to an end last week. The passageway was simply too narrow and the bus driver ultimately hooked onto the front side fender of the car. Traffic piled up. Neighbors emerged from their homes. The bus driver got off the bus to see if he could figure out who owned the blue sedan. (None of the neighbors knew at that point.)

Finally, the owner of the blue sedan came out from his house, asking neighbors if they knew what was going on.

"Someone's parked their car and blocked the school bus," came the answer.

The fellow looked toward the bus. "That's my car," he responded.

Meanwhile, as the bus driver approached the car owner, a neighbor was talking to the kids on the stuck bus to keep them calm. (For the record, they were not only calm, but were enjoying the drama.)

"The city should add a sign that says it's not legal to park there so the bus can make it through," the car owner said to the neighbor as she left the kids.

She told him that it would be a lot easier for large vehicles to make the turn around the corner if he didn't park his car where he had been parking it.

"But it's a legal spot," he responded, adding, "I'm a lawyer, so I know it's legal."

The car owner knows that it's difficult for large vehicles to make the turn around the bend when he parks his car where it does. But since it's not illegal to park there, he sees no wrong in doing so even knowing the resulting traffic tie up he often causes.

"The city should do something about this!" he argues.

The right thing, regardless of whether it's legal, is for him to do something about it and not park his car where he knows it's a problem. Other neighbors already know this is the right thing to do - even if it's not illegal to do otherwise. If ethics is how we decide to behave when we belong together, we shouldn't always need a no-parking sign to tell us how to act. 

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business and The Good, the Bad, and Your Business: Choosing Right When Ethical Dilemmas Pull You Apart, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to 

(c) 2012 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune MediaServices, Inc.


Anonymous said...

Typical lawyer. He can't tell the difference between what's legal & what's right!

yawningdog said...

Long before the owner of the blue sedan moved in. I would painted that section of the curb red, if I couldn't get the city to do it for me.

William Jacobson said...

Jeffrey, the right thing to do would be to alert the city to the issue and let them make the decision on whether it was right to continue to allow parking at the corner. Having the blue sedan forgo parking in the spot expressly does not resolve the issue since it remains a legal parking spot and others will simply park there. The bus driver was completely in the wrong by failing to make a safe turn (and for not knowing the difference). If this issue has existed for some time, I fault those who have not escalated the issue previously.

I fail to see in your narrative where the lawyer knew before the accident that his parking was causing problems. No parking signs, and in fact the law itself, is intended to convey society's expectations on how people are expected to act. If people "in the know" fail to follow through on getting problems fixed, problems will continue unabated.

The worst thing people can do is continue to do nothing...

William Jacobson
Anaheim, CA