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Flashing Orange Globes

On pedestrian crossings.

On my way to work each day, I pass a sort of shrine, dispiriting and perplexing. It is a pedestrian crossing which is festooned with fading, decaying bunches of flowers. They are tied to the steel posts on which the traffic lights that control the crossing are mounted. They commemorate a young man who died there recently, in circumstances which have yet to come to court and so, under English law, should not be discussed. And I will not discuss them. But there is no doubt that the young man is dead, and no doubt that I am not especially surprised. I have had narrow escapes from injury and perhaps death at that crossing myself, as drivers have ignored the signals which legally require them to stop. This is more and more common in Britain. It is wise for those crossing the highway to assume they are not safe. I see the foolish carelessness of drivers and cyclists at such crossings every few days and I try to assume it will happen whenever I am crossing busy roads. There is no other way to behave if you wish to get to the other side.

Not long ago, in the middle of a political party conference in a northern city, I was nearly run down on such a crossing. These conferences are one of the few occasions when British police officers emerge from wherever they spend their days, and appear in large numbers on the street. Several of them, in their evocative traditional uniforms, were mere feet away and I let out a bellow of rage at the driver who had jumped the light in the hope of attracting the attention of at least one constable. I (sort of) succeeded. Puzzled but faintly interested, he ambled over, probably mostly concerned that I was now blocking traffic by refusing to let the driver get past me. The driver wound down his window and was given the mildest police reproof I have ever heard in my life, along the lines of “We can’t really have this sort of thing going on, can we now?” Then he waved him on his way. He did not take his name or ask to see his license or anything. I had been (sort of) amazed that a person could have taken such a risk in front of the police, but I was still learning what I know now, that ordinarily bad people in Britain—miscreants, vandals, petty thieves, drug abusers, the sort who might also do a little light violence, mugging or burglary—do not fear the police at all, and regard them with contempt. So do bad drivers. It is as if the police have read James Q. Wilson’s “broken windows” theory (which states that if you let a few small offenses flourish unchecked, many more, including quite big crimes, will soon follow) and decided that this is just what they want to happen. And it does. Yet more proof of the adage that almost all organizations are in fact run by their enemies, or will end up that way.

But this is just a banal truth about Britain nowadays. I have discussed it to death and nothing happens. My subject is pedestrian crossings, and the great virtue once contained in them, which is now departing. I do not know how it may be with other countries (well, I know a bit) but in Britain we had a sort of miracle, starting in the 1930s. Hideous numbers of deaths and injuries on the roads persuaded the government, in the person of a transport minister called Leslie Hore-Belisha, to introduce a special new measure: flashing orange globes, mounted on the tops of striped poles, marked places on major roads where cars were required to stop for pedestrians. This was an absolute rule. If a person placed her foot upon the road, the driver had to stop and wait for her to cross, all the way. And people, seeing the point of it, obeyed it. These devices were known as “Belisha beacons,” a term which still just about survives in the memories of the old. This is only fair. Poor Hore-Belisha deserves to be remembered for something good, having had a miserable time as minister for war, driven from his post in 1940 in circumstances which still sound suspicious and unpleasant. Round about the time I was born, seventy years ago, the message of the beacons was re-inforced by the painting of white stripes on the road—so that they became “zebra crossings.” In fact in my life that name has more or less superseded the old one.

And then it began to change. While many of the old sort of crossings still survive, as they are cheap to install and maintain, various new versions have in recent years begun to take over. For some reason these are named after birds, such as the pelican and the toucan. And they have been a terrible backward step. Strangely, pedestrians have been slow to realize the huge truncation of their freedoms which is involved. For at a pelican crossing, it is no good stepping on the road. You have to press a button, and wait for the light to change to red. When it does there is a frantic urgent beeping, which mainly emphasizes how little time you have to cross. And there is also a fleeting green signal, a pictogram of a person walking, which is illuminated when you are allowed to go. The button, the beeping, and the flashing toys give the illusion of power. But it can take nearly a minute for the light to change. I sometimes wonder if these lights are fitted with devices which wait until traffic has all gone before activating the red light. The driver has got his priority back. Worse, many pedestrians grow so weary of waiting that they cross anyway. This means drivers having to wait for the light to change when there is not even anyone there. Even I, a militant anti-car cyclist, can see how provoking this must be. And of course this leads to disrespect, and to people just driving on, red light or not.

The old system, governed by nothing more than conscience, was —for most of my life—totally effective. I cannot remember ever having seen it defied or abused. But within a few years of conscience being replaced by mechanical authority, the whole thing is slowly breaking down. And so we shall see more flowers on the crossings.