Monday, February 04, 2008
In Paris, whatever you do, don't break stride!
Street safety. Parisian drivers are notorious for ignoring pedestrians.... Don't assume you have the right of way, even in a crosswalk. When crossing a street, keep your pace constant and don't stop suddenly. By law, drivers must miss pedestrians by only a meter -- a little more than three feet. Drivers carefully calculate your speed and won't hit you, provided you don't alter your route or pace.
---Rick Steves, Paris 2008
I never knew this before. In former trips to Paris, I proceeded only with a generalized sense that you take your life in your hands when crossing the street.
It turns out the Rick Steves is right... and it's not only the drivers. Basically, every resident of Paris carefully calculates your speed and won't hit you, provided that you don't alter your route or pace. This includes motorcyclists, bicyclists and even other pedestrians.
"Smart car" for sure! A Parisian driver prepares to miss the pedestrian by one meter.
I found this out the hard way, on successive days, when I broke stride to avoid, first, a cyclist, and later, a pedestrian. Both were coming straight at me, having apparently done a thorough analysis of my vector and triangulated their personal solution for avoiding me but then -- whammo -- I stopped, thereby screwing up the whole system.
The problem is that, as an American, I find it very counterintuitive not to alter my pace to avoid other people in motion. I'm used to stopping for other people, whether they're on foot or in vehicles, to let them pass. But the French person will not pass harmlessly in front of me, since they'll have carefully calculated their own route and speed to pass one meter behind where I'm supposed to be. Only, having stopped, I'm in their spot.
We've all had the experience of walking head on toward another person, coming to a dead halt face-to-face, saying "excuse me," stepping to the side to get out of the other person's way only to find that they've stepped to the side, mirroring your move and continuing the impasse. And this impasse can continue for a few moves, as one or both parties chuckle in nervous embarrassment.
Two Parisian motorcyclists carefully miss me by one meter
on the sidewalk near the Hotel de Ville.
It happens -- but not that often -- and we Americans live with that and move on. But the French totally melt down in that situation. I looked into the eyes of this French bicyclist and pedestrian and on both occasions, what I saw there was sheer, uncomprehending terror -- followed quickly by a barrage of epithets.
Don't try to avoid pedestrians like these -- the safest thing for all involved
is to walk straight at them.
So my advice for dealing with a pedestrian walking right toward you is the same as Admiral Lord Nelson's advice to his captains for dealing with French ships: "never mind maneuvers, always go straight at 'em."
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