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Stephen Quinn is the host of On the Coast on CBC Radio One, 690 AM and 88.1 FM in Vancouver<
Stephen Quinn is the host of On the Coast on CBC Radio One, 690 AM and 88.1 FM in Vancouver<

stephen quinn

The challenge of a world where technology enables obliviousness Add to ...

Stephen Quinn is the host of On the Coast on CBC Radio One, 690 AM and 88.1 FM in Vancouver.

A small town in the Netherlands is trying to save oblivious pedestrians from themselves.

The Dutch town of Bodegraven (population roughly 20,000) has installed LED traffic signals in sidewalks at an intersection to prevent texting pedestrians from being injured.

The idea is that since many people are looking down, glued to their phones, they fail to notice the traditional intersection traffic signals, and therefore need to have the signals moved to their very narrow field of vision.

And so the town has embedded the lights into the pavement, at the threshold between the sidewalk and the potentially dangerous, busy roadway. This gives even the most engrossed walking texter – or wexter, if you prefer – a fighting chance of remaining alive.

One can only hope that when they do step into traffic, the automatic collision-avoidance technology in the oncoming car – a technology engineered to compensate for the oblivious driver – will slam on the brakes to prevent a needless, but somewhat predictable tragedy.

The sidewalk lights are just now being tested – I eagerly await data on how effective they are.

Lights embedded in the sidewalk would have done nothing for the young woman I encountered during an afternoon rush hour this week crossing mid-block on Smithe Street, her back turned to traffic, staring down at her phone, shuffling along while three lanes of fast-moving vehicles raced off the Cambie Bridge toward her.

Walk through the city on any given day and, like love, obliviousness is all around us.

Rather than commanding people to pay attention – to perhaps look up and make sure the intersection is clear, or to check over their shoulder before changing lanes – we have enabled them. There is more than one app out there designed to make walking while texting safer by using your phone’s camera to show you what you’re about to walk into, so you never have to take your eyes off the screen. The online blurb for the app Sidewalk Buddy reads, “Texting and walking safety issues are gone! Navigate busy streets with ease, get more work done and be able to multitask with safety in mind.”

This is what it has come to.

General civic obliviousness, however, is not limited to texting pedestrians and inattentive drivers, and, sadly, technology has not yet been developed to wipe it out.

I don’t have a lot of nice things to say about Toronto, but I will say this: People in Toronto know how to walk through a door. They push or pull it open and check behind them to make sure they’re not going to let it slam into anyone’s face. They’ll hold it open long enough so a person can get a hand out in front of them to take over the task. More often than not that person will say, “thanks.”

In Vancouver this is a courtesy that is extended sparingly, if at all. And the “thank you”? Forget about it.

Non-texting sidewalk obliviousness is rampant, with chance meetings and the subsequent long catch-up chats topping the list of annoyances. Four people, engaged in conversation, clogging the only available space between the garbage can and produce bin forcing others to squeeze past or step on to the roadway. Four people, each of them devoid of the sort of self-awareness that prompts decent people to tug their friend out of the way so the conversation may continue without inconveniencing passers-by.

Lineups? Obliviousness incarnate, with the best example being the single line that leads to multiple cashiers in grocery stores that tragically do that sort of thing. Oh look, the cashier down there at Cash 5 is yelling at you and waving her arms begging you to bring your basket to her. Now she’s jumping up and down. The light above her station is flashing. Please notice.

There are too many sins of obliviousness in traffic and on transit to list. Signalling late or not at all tops my list while driving.

On transit, the award goes to those who fail to remove the giant MEC backpack before stepping on to the train, then pirouette around the car until they smack a five-year-old in the head with a dangling BPA-free water bottle.

You may chalk these up as petty concerns but encountering them multiple times, day after day, can wear a guy down.

Perhaps we can look forward to an app that reminds people that we live in a society, and that they should behave accordingly.

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