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Don't walk yourself to death

You may imagine that it might be fun to become invisible, but you'd be wrong. Harry Potter and his cloak of invisibility? He'd be dead inside of ten minutes in the real world. "Yer a wizard, Harry!" Well, now you're a pancake.

You may imagine that it might be fun to become invisible, but you'd be wrong.

Harry Potter and his cloak of invisibility? He'd be dead inside of ten minutes in the real world. "Yer a wizard, Harry!" Well, now you're a pancake. Expelliarmus your way out of that one.

Invisibility might seem to be the passport to a hidden world, the perfect way to spy on your enemies and your friends, a fiendish way to pull off the perfect crime. It isn't any one of those things. It's just a good way to get run over.

Every day, a poorly trained army gets up after not-quite-enough sleep, absorbs a shocking amount of caffeine, and then cranks over the engine of a two-tonne killing machine. Not content with a just-the-basics level of competence, the situation is then compounded by endless distractions, from brightly coloured displays to in-car conversations. Music pulses from the stereo. Text messages can be dictated through the Bluetooth system. The word "infotainment" is brightly displayed on every brochure, as is the phrase, "in-car entertainment."

But to judge by the behaviour of most pedestrians in the Lower Mainland, every driver on the road is a highly focused professional with the skill of a fighter ace and the multi-tasking abilities of a trauma surgeon. Funny how as soon as you get behind the wheel, everyone's an idiot, but when you're on foot, everybody's all too willing to place their lives in the hands of a stranger.

Years ago, Sesame Street taught children the proper way to cross the street. First you looked to the left, then to the right, and then to the left again before crossing. Now the preferred routine is to check your Facebook, then your text messages, and then make sure you haven't got an email or two.

The consensus seems to be that it is the driver's responsibility to stop, to be attentive, to watch and be careful. They're the ones in charge of machinery: it's up to them to watch out for the small fry. The pedestrian has a right to safe passage, and the driver has a responsibility to not hit anyone.

Broadly speaking, this is of course true. Climbing behind the wheel is an everyday, commonplace sort of thing, but it's still not something to be taken lightly. A car can cause tremendous harm if driven without due care and attention, and a conscientious driver needs to be extra-aware of their surroundings.

Many are not.

Particularly irritating are the folks who try for a left turn on a green even though there are people already in the crosswalk. Inevitably, they lurch to a halt in the middle of the intersection and hold up traffic, or skim by with a cheery apologetic wave as they run over your foot.

In the war between car and pedestrian, the latter's response seems to be aggressively ignoring the former, like some sort of combat lemming. As soon as the light changes, people step off the curb en masse - no checking to make sure it's safe, no hesitation to allow for a car foolishly trying to sneak through an amber. The white walk sign pops up, and off we all go.

The problem seems twofold: first, drivers don't see the seemingly invisible pedestrians; secondly, pedestrians don't take steps to make sure they're seen. Blame? Oh, there's plenty to go around, but in this particular case, blame is almost irrelevant compared to the after-effects.

According to Vancouver's own case study on the problem, pedestrian collisions account for just two per cent of the accidents in the Lower Mainland, but nearly half of the fatal collisions. People are vulnerable, and cars are dangerous.

In Holland, certain intersections have been designed to reflect this state of affairs. Rather than clearly designated crossing areas, bike lanes, and so on, experimental intersections ditch the signage and the lights for a free-for-all roundabout.

Sounds like a vortex of doom, right? Not hardly: because drivers slow down when faced with the unexpected, and pedestrians step off the curb with trepidation, both groups are looking out for each other. These intersections are oddfeeling places where extra attention is required, and as-such, more attention equals fewer accidents.

Of course, we can't simply rip up all the crosswalks and hope to replicate the same effect, but there is considerable evidence to indicate that drivers ignore, or become confused by, traditional traffic separation methods like bike lanes and flashing crosswalks. A flashing crosswalk across four lanes seems a particularly ineffective device, as you can see from watching cars blissfully sail through while there are people using it, or nose-dive while the brakes are jammed on.

There are engineering solutions, from Japanesestyle all-way stops in which pedestrians have their own moment to dash across the intersection with all vehicle traffic stopped, to speed reductions in high-traffic areas.

However, the short-term solution is perhaps a little simpler. Pedestrians and drivers can help each other out by simply remembering that either party exists and has an equal right to use the road safely and effectively.

You don't see many pedestrians using their arms to signal their intent to cross the road at a crosswalk or intersection, but whenever such behaviour occurs, drivers seem to respond. If eye contact is made, drivers slow down, and watch to see what the pedestrian is doing. People wave each other on. They communicate.

Especially at night, or late in the evening, pedestrians need to remember what it's like to be in a car and simply not see someone dressed entirely in dark clothing. It's a frustrating, shocking experience when someone dashes out against the light, and you barely make out the ill-lit silhouette in time.

For drivers, a little more awareness would be the best possible New Year's resolution to tape to your dashboard and/or nail to your forehead. Too many of us drive hastily, without making the necessary double-check at a right or left turn. We don't slow when passing a car that's stopped while turning - often your fellow motorist might be waiting for someone you don't see to cross.

Make the invisible visible again. Be seen if you're a pedestrian, and learn how to see again if you're a driver. We're all in a hurry, but in the end, we all need to get there safely.

Brendan McAleer is a freelance writer and automotive enthusiast. If you have a suggestion for a column, or would be interested in having your car club featured, please contact him at mcaleeronwheels@gmail. com. Follow Brendan on Twitter: @brendan_mcaleer.

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