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This Is No Place for Pedestrians

October 04, 2000|Steve Chawkins

I was about to exit my office driveway in my SUV--yes, I'm one of those--just as a white-haired lady in sunglasses was about to cross my path.

I stopped, and waved her on.

Then she stopped, and waved me on.

I smiled and issued another, more aggressive wave: Please. After you. I insist.

Then she smiled and did the same: No, really. You first. I insist.

Both of us were grinning and neither of us was moving.

It was a perfect exercise in temporary paralysis--one that ended only when I rolled down my window and asked Jean Nussman if she wouldn't mind sharing her thoughts about our lovely moment of mutual mistrust.

"Well, you just never know with people on the roads," she said. "With younger drivers, you just stand back and wait, and see what they're going to do," she said. "When they're older, you try to reach a kind of understanding."

A retired nurse, Nussman walks quite a bit and knows the dangers afoot. She also runs a Red Cross program shuttling people without transportation to medical appointments. "I'm kind of a people person," she said.

"Then I'm glad I didn't run you over," I said.

We parted friends--an increasingly rare outcome of what traffic engineers might call the pedestrian-motorist interface. In 1998, Ventura County was the 17th most dangerous place to walk in California, according to a study by a national nonprofit group. In 1999, we learned this week, the county had shot up in the rankings to become the 10th most dangerous. As for next year, there's absolutely no reason to think we can't go for the gold.

Ventura County has many charms, but it's no place for walkers. Hikers have plenty of mountain trails, but none is so dangerous as the uncharted path from the restaurants on the south side of busy Johnson Drive in Ventura to the movie theaters on the north.

You're in the mood for adventure? Try navigating Victoria Avenue on foot, dodging the minivans and pickups whipping into shopping malls, gas stations, fast-food places.

Or try getting from your car to a far-flung store in the remotest reaches of a big-box parking lot. On the plus side, this can be aerobically stimulating; the Wal-Mart lot in Oxnard is larger than the city's downtown. On the minus side, you'll be out there on the asphalt naked, without benefit of anything as protective as a sidewalk. In the lot and on the street, you're nothing more than a bothersome impediment to traffic flow.

Little wonder that the number of trips on foot has dropped 42% in the last 20 years, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation, which apparently has a Stroll Enumeration section. Little wonder that American kids are turning into chunks of margarine balanced on pretzel-stick legs, with thumbs black and swollen from video-gaming. Walking today is not an occupation for innocents.

Harold Foy knows that better than anyone.

Five hours a day, he mans the crosswalk at the Ventura County Medical Center.

"Look at 'em," he said, gazing at the rush of traffic on Loma Vista Road. "When I was growing up, you slowed down in a hospital zone. Here we've got two hospitals, plenty of doctors' offices and a couple of schools. Look at 'em!"

Until recently, four lanes of traffic shot in front of the hospital. A recent restriping narrowed it to two--better, according to Foy, but still no match for drivers whizzing through the crosswalk despite the halt and lame waiting on both sides of it.

At 72, Foy, a retired cabby, has been a crossing guard here and there for nine years. When he sees someone waiting to cross, he ventures into the road with his red stop sign stretched out as far as his arm will take it, a cross brandished before the automotive Dracula. Then he blows a whistle and waves the person across, usually with a cheery, "How you doing today?" especially for the old lady in the walker, the man with a bandage over his eye.

"People are basically pretty nice," he says, "except when they get behind a wheel."

Incidentally, today is the state's second annual Walk to School Day, when parents and their kids brave the mean streets together.

Let's be careful out there.


Steve Chawkins can be reached at 653-7561 or at

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