Go Around

There is much to discuss like, for example, stoplights. Sometimes a stoplight downtown will turn red, but the stoplights in the other direction, the cross-street, fail to change. They stay on red. Everyone at the corner, driver and pedestrian, has a red light. No one has the right of way. All the stoplights stay on red for what seems like three or four minutes – longer than a regular stoplight cycle. I’ve witnessed this four or five times in the last several years. I don’t know what causes it.

Another, quicker, phenomenon may be related. Stoplights downtown sometimes change abruptly when an ambulance or police car comes through an intersection with its siren going. I don’t know if light changes for emergency vehicles are triggered by a remote control in the vehicle, a dispatcher tracking the car back at headquarters, a sound sensor, or something else. But emergency light changes are over with quickly.

Stoplights are apparently carefully timed to make traffic run as efficiently as possible. Maybe the four red lights are a periodic event designed to compensate for an unsolvable limitation in the system – an inconveniently placed hill or a city block that’s a few feet shorter on one side than on its opposite side – the traffic control equivalent of a leap year.

Traffic always reacts to this event in the same way:

Stoplights on adjacent streets aren’t affected, so traffic begins to build up in every direction. Pedestrians stand on their corners looking at each other confused, until one impatient jaywalker strolls boldly into the crosswalk. A trail of pedestrians follows, timidly. This plays out separately at each of the four corners of the affected intersection.

Finally, one driver decides that he’s had enough and claims the right of way by speeding through the intersection. One or two more cars follow the first one. It’s strangely quiet at the corner – pedestrians are holding their breath and Seattle drivers are generally slow to honk their horns.

Those pedestrians who are still waiting to cross, are driven to action by the sight of cars running red lights. Why should we forfeit our right of way to cars in this impossible situation, they seem to think. No one’s going to push us around. Jaywalkers flood the crosswalks and inevitably the light turns green in one direction. Pedestrians who aren’t favored by the light change continue their stroll across the street, unphased by the cars pointed straight at them.

Maybe a few pedestrians linger in the street for a moment longer than is necessary. Unlike the first group of reluctant jaywalkers, these ones stare down any driver who challenges their right of way.

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