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Motorists, the road belongs to walkers too

Update: October, 12/2014 - 20:03

by Hong Thuy

Often we move through our familiar day-to-day routine without taking notice of its long-term impact.

Whether it is taking our vehicles out of the garage, or starting the engine to hit the road, or driving in rush hour to our offices, there exists in our minds a series of predictable steps and specific objects associated with these steps.

Yet, there are aspects of these routine activities that we notice only when we are able to assess how well we are doing them and learn from this.

An assessment of my routine activities came about when I saw a foreigner, a senior citizen, at a major intersection of Kim Ma Street, where the density of vehicles converging on the four-lane road made him hesistant to cross.

It seemed to me that the ageing pedestrian was there for the first time. He looked absolutely terrified of the traffic snarl. On his right side, about a hundred motorbike riders were lined up in front of a red traffic light, all ready and raring to go.

Though he seemed scared, the pedestrian apparently wanted to move on. So he hurried across the pedestrian lane as soon as he saw the traffic light in front of him turn green.

His attempt seemed smooth and easy up to the point where he reached an island at the middle of the intersection. Then, probably to his surprise, the traffic light in front of him suddenly turned red while the one in front of the motorbike riders turned green, giving them and the drivers of other vehicles behind them a reason to speed off.

Perhaps it would be too much for him to expect drivers of buses, cars and motorcycles to stop and give way so he could continue crossing the street to his destination. And indeed, the pedestrian just stood there, scared and stranded at the middle of the intersection, while vehicles ran wild on the road all around him.

No doubt the pedestrian failed to cross the intersection quickly enough, though some motorcyclists, myself included, tried to slow down to avoid hitting him.

Yet, none of the drivers were prepared to stop and give way to the pedestrian, who stood by the island at arm's length from where I halted my motorbike.

Pedestrians are quite vulnerable to traffic, and to be fair, this happens at many intersections in Ha Noi City. In most cases, they are left to take their lives in their own hands and walk along busy roads.

A Kiwi friend of mine who recently visited Viet Nam made an interesting comment. She said she found it strange that not a single traffic warden was around to stop motorists and help pedestrians cross the roads.

I am not surprised at her comment. Auckland City in New Zealand, from which she hails, might be car-crazy at times, but at least there, the crossings are so pedestrian-friendly. It is also common in that country to see motorists stop willingly to allow pedestrians to cross.

London and New York have their car-crazy moments as well, but by and large, they too have become increasingly friendly to those who prefer to walk the streets.

Ha Noi, though, is hardly friendly to pedestrians, as it has nearly four million motorcycles and 380,000 cars which account for 76 per cent of the city's transport market share.

This adds to the lack of traffic management infrastructure, which makes up less than 10 per cent of the city's land area, an alarming state of affairs since city authorities estimate that about 25 per cent of the city's land area are needed for infrastructure that could effectively handle traffic.

The huge number of vehicles and the chronic lack of traffic management infrastructure are the reasons behind the capital city's lack of pedestrian-friendly intersections.

Designs that ignore pedestrian safety create a "distraction syndrome" among many motorists who seem to give no thought to pedestrians.

Though most vehicle drivers are conscious about the presence of pedestrians and avoid hurting any of them, their minds are so focused on their little worlds, where they have to rush from point A to point B to avoid a salary cut for tardiness at work, and have to stick the noses of their vehicles into the behinds of other vehicles in front of them like robots.

In the ensuing competition for time and space on the road, they are likely to make other drivers oblivious of the presence of pedestrians and prevent them from slowing down or stopping when pedestrians are on their side of the road or are dangerously close by.

In addition, many motorists are willing to drive on footpaths to avoid traffic congestion on the roads in peak hours, leaving pedestrians with no choice but to step aside and give way to them.

I think this is unfair to walkers, as a trip on foot creates no emissions, reduces traffic jams and even improves the individual's health.

Like it or not, every mode of travel has equal priority on the road, and it is the motorists' responsibility to be on the lookout and take every precaution possible to avoid injuring, and yield to, pedestrians.

Raising people's awareness of the need for traffic safety is considered an important measure to protect pedestrians from accidents.

There is not a shadow of a doubt that a culture of traffic safety is achieved only when a common understanding on this is reached, and habitual actions connected to the reality of how road users treat each other to ensure traffic safety is made.

This concept has been interpreted this way: road users are supposed to stay between white painted lines and avoid encroaching on the other side of the street, drive within the appropriate speed limit and wear safety helmets, among others.

But, there seems to be no norm on how motorcyclists should treat pedestrians to make traffic more pleasant and safer for everyone.

Law enforcement authorities should come up with an effective plan to heighten the sense of responsibility among motorists and hopefully, ease the mayhem in the streets in the near future.

But for me, it would be a lesson to take my responsibility seriously and keep my eyes open for pedestrians. After all, everyone is a pedestrian at one time or another, and I myself am not an exception. — VNS

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