Saturday, May 24, 2014

A Concept for Our Time: The Mvped

If you’re feeling tired, take a walk on any Tucson city street.  You may learn that one thing worse than feeling rundown is being run down.  But if you survive the walk, the experience is guaranteed to get your blood flowing, focus your attention, and make you feel glad to be alive.  See, isn’t that better?

These days a lot gets written about near-death experiences.  The best way I know to have one is to try to step across any street in Tucson.

I don’t know what it is about this town.  Our citizens nail pedestrians like we’re trying to set a record.  We dispatched yet another one just last weekend.

When I was a news producer in a different city, our police department had a short but memorable term for any incident involving a motor vehicle and a pedestrian.  It was called an “mvped,” usually spelled as I just did it and pronounced “em vee ped.”  The shorthand saved time in dispatching people to accident scenes, both for the police and for the media.  “Base to unit 7,” our assignment editor would say laconically over the 2-way.  “We’ve got an mvped at the corner of Fifth and Main.”  The news crew would know exactly what he was talking about and what to expect when they arrived on scene.

Tucson has embraced the concept, if not the term.  When it comes to mvpeds, we know how to rack ‘em and stack ‘em.  Recently our local paper began a series of stories naming 100 things that define our city.  I assume the mvped will be on the list.  We have dispatched so many of them that you have to wonder why the pedestrian hasn’t been named for protection under the Endangered Species Act.

I suspect part of the problem is that so few people actually do any significant amount of walking anymore that we simply forget pedestrians are out there.  What happened to me not long ago probably is typical.  I had stopped at a busy street corner to provide a statement for a fender-bender I’d witnessed (which turned out to be a waste of time; our local police don’t investigate those anymore due to budget cuts).  Because of where I’d parked, I had to walk across the intersection twice.  As a local journalist, I was fully aware of the dangers pedestrians face; my newsroom had aired quite a few stories on the subject.  So when I crossed the street, I did so with great caution and alertness. 

Given the news stories, when I finally got safely back to my car, I felt pretty good about my experience.  I started to wonder whether my newsroom had perhaps overhyped the coverage.   Despite all the sensationalistic blathering about dead and maimed pedestrians, during my two crossings only one of my fellow citizens had attempted to kill me.  And she even hadn't tried that hard, coming to a tire-sliding, neck-whipping halt (on a red light, mind you) smack dab in the middle of the crosswalk a full three feet in front of me.  Yaaah! Ya missed me!  

The look of chagrin and embarrassment on the driver's face was so comical that I had to laugh, which probably was not the appropriate reaction, given how close I’d come to making a guest appearance on my own newscast.  (“Up next:  Tucson’s traffic death toll ticks up another notch, and this time, the person killed is our very own news director!  Plus—How your sofa can give you cancer!  And—the World Waterskiing Squirrel Championships come to Tucson!  Those stories plus all your weather and sports, next at Ten!”)

Nor was this my first brush with immortality in Tucson's Mvped Hall of Fame—which is remarkable, considering how seldom I find myself beating my soles on city streets.  Just two weeks prior, my wife and I had been walking home from visiting a restaurant across the street, when a driver tried his level best to reenact a scene from Death Race 2000, with us in a starring role.  We had pressed the button and patiently waited for the light to cycle.  When the pedestrian signal finally beckoned us across, we accepted the invitation and proceeded into the crosswalk.  We’d made it all the way to the concrete median and were stepping off to continue across when I heard the throaty roar of a truck engine approaching from behind.  I managed to jerk us both back to the median just as a giant black pickup equipped with a white toolbox installed across its bed roared into the intersection from behind us, hooked an illegal left against the red turn arrow, and blasted past practically on two wheels right in front of us, with the frame of the driver’s side mirror missing us by about a foot.  As the vehicle rocketed down the road and disappeared in a cloud of blue smoke, the cowboy-hatted driver never turned his head, giving no sign of having seen us.  Maybe he hadn’t.  But based on the town’s track record, I’m pretty sure that if he’d succeeded in turning us into bumper bugs, the vehicle would have disappeared over the horizon just as fast.  The motto here seems to be, “If you don’t like my driving, keep out of crosswalks.”

But it’s not all about the drivers.  I also know from first-hand experience that plenty of pedestrians in this town are equally as crazy.  Most of them seem to feel that street-crossing etiquette at night calls for the wearing of dark clothes, so as not to inadvertently spook any drivers when you dart out in front of them.  A crosswalk is something you use if you happen to notice a signal in your favor as you’re walking by; otherwise, you cross at random anywhere along the street.  For that purpose, gaps in traffic are recommended but not mandatory.  IPod earphones are a great way to soothe you on your journey, and keep you from being startled by the rude and noisy approach of an oncoming vehicle.  And as a pedestrian, you’re expected to do your part to uphold safety standards by regularly initiating brake tests for vehicles on the road.

I’ve had at least half a dozen incidents where dark-clothed pedestrians have stepped out in front of my car at night close enough to cause me to stomp on the brakes.  The most dramatic of those happened this way:  I was approaching a major intersection, and had the green light.  When I was still a couple of hundred feet away, I saw a man standing at the curb on the left side of the street, dressed in the standard pedestrian uniform (black clothes).  As I watched, he stepped into the crosswalk.  Even though the light was green, no cars were traveling in the opposing lane.  With my car quickly approaching, the guy made it safely across, stepped up onto the median, and looked across my lane, without ever turning his head in my direction.  No, he’s not going to do what I think he’s going to do, I thought. 

Oh yeah.  He is.  I was no more than a car length and a half away when the guy stepped right out in front of me.  Fortunately, my idiot alarm had gone off, and I had slowed down considerably.  Now, I stood on the brake pedal.  Thanks to anti-lock systems, cars no longer screech satisfyingly to a halt.  But every loose item in my back seat flew forward and struck my windshield or the back of my head as the car zoomed to a stop about six inches from the guy.  At this point, the man stopped and turned.  The gentleman—and I use that term loosely, if not sardonically—swayed as if he were standing on the heaving deck of a schooner a typhoon, and made a concerted effort to focus his eyes on me.  The effort failed.

Now, I have a standing rule.  Whatever happens on the road, grind your teeth and go on.  I adopted this guideline because of the number of stories that newsrooms I’ve worked in have put out about people being shot after lipping off in traffic.  But in this case, I violated the rule for the first time in years.  Rolling down my window, I shouted, “Dude!  You’re going to get yourself killed!”

Tottering, he seemed to consider this for a moment, but then turned and stumbled off to the right.  Just before he stepped into lane next to mine, a sedan blasted by going at least 50, missing him by no more than a foot.  He didn’t even pause, and continued his way obliviously down the crosswalk.  He made it, but given the number of pedestrians who’ve died since that time, I’m guessing his crossings these days are on streets of gold.

And don’t get even me started about bicycles.  Too late, I’ve started.  Tucson is considered a bike-friendly town.  What that means is, we build lots of bike lanes, invite cyclists to come out and play, and then make side bets on how many will fail to survive the year.  There are two kinds of motorists in this town:  those who’ve hit a cyclist, and those who’ve thought about it.

The cyclists come in two flavors, too:  those who are courteous and professional, paying scrupulous attention to safety.  They make up the majority.  The rest ride their bikes exactly as if they were pedestrians on wheels, in cheerful defiance of every relevant traffic law.  Which leads me to my last anecdote.  I was driving west through an intersection, and had stopped in the left turn lane with my signal blinking.  I had the light and was waiting for one last car in the opposing lane to come on through, when I spotted a 30-something guy standing with a bike on the sidewalk at the opposite left corner—the south west corner.  As I watched, he rolled into the street, and then proceeded across the intersection—diagonally, apparently intending to go from the southwest corner to the northeast one.   

If his aim was to scoff at traffic laws, I will say that his choice of a diagonal crossing was efficient.  Done that way, he was guaranteed to violate at least one red light, and he did.  The oncoming eastbound car I was waiting for had to brake hard to keep from hitting him.  Oblivious to this, the guy sailed blithely into the middle of the intersection, passing within inches of my front bumper  as the green light ahead of me practically begged me to gun it and hit him.  He then pedaled into the westbound lane to my right, going east.  An oncoming car headed west in that lane also was forced to brake hard to avoid nailing him.  

For the second time in about a month, I found myself rolling down my window.  At the top of my voice, I yelled out my passenger side, “Are you crazy!”  

“Yes!” he called out cheerfully as he made it to the northeast corner, and then cruised on his merry way down the sidewalk, in the face of oncoming traffic.  

You gotta love this town.  By the way, if you want in on that pool—we have one for both cyclists and pedestrians—drop me a line.  


If you enjoyed this, please share with your friends.  You can find more snarkograms here.  My well-reviewed novel Messages, a TV news exposé and crime drama, is written largely in this style.  And I invite you to subscribe to this blog.

©2014 by Forrest Carr.  All rights reserved.

No comments:

Post a Comment