Adventures in Walking

At least four times a day, my dog and I cross on foot the intersection of Prospect Park Southwest and 11th Avenue here in Brooklyn. It’s dangerous, even though there’s a light. Prospect Park Southwest bends sharply just to the east of the intersection, along a stretch that a neighbor of ours calls Dead Man’s Curve. Our car was totaled while parked there soon after we moved in. To the west, Prospect Park Southwest is straight, and many of the cars approaching from that direction accelerate a bit wildly, giddy, perhaps, with a sense of liberation, as this is just about the geographic point where the bourgeois aura of Park Slope, and any attendant behavioral constraints, fall away. Buildings and parked cars, meanwhile, obstruct the sightlines of any vehicles approaching from the south along 11th Avenue. Fortunately, there’s a stop light. Unfortunately, quite a few drivers consider it optional.

I’m moved to write about the intersection because last week my dog and I were nearly run over while crossing it, and I read yesterday an article by the science journalist Annie Murphy Paul about near-misses. Don’t think of near-misses as lucky escapes, Paul writes; think of them as warnings. A near-miss means that next time could be a catastophe.

Our near-miss happened thus: The dog and I were crossing Prospect Park Southwest from south to north with the Walk sign in our favor. When we were about halfway across, a van barreled into the intersection at high speed and turned left across the crosswalk, missing us by an inch or two. Because it was cold, I had the hood of my coat up (a big mistake), and I wasn’t able to see him coming out of the corner of my eye, as I might otherwise have done. All I saw was a van suddenly almost kill my dog, who was spared only because he happened to be walking in heel. After a moment or two of shock, I hollered something unprintable. The driver either didn’t hear or didn’t care. In any case he didn’t stop. I didn’t have the presence of mind to notice his license plate number, but what would I have done with it? A bike messenger who saw the near-miss said to me, as he passed, “I can’t believe he did that. I saw him coming, and I was like, He’s not really going to do that, is he. But he did. He did. Man.” For the next hour or so I felt the uncanny elation that comes from being aware of luck in the matter of not being dead. The whole day, in fact, was to have a sort of optative flavor.

Turning vehicles are supposed to yield to pedestrians, whose right of way, thanks to a flaw in most intersections’ design, generally occurs at the same time as that of turning vehicles. This van had a green light, in other words, and perhaps he didn’t want to bother with details. Or perhaps he was texting. Or adjusting his playlist. Though he nearly killed me, he wasn’t the most egregiously reckless driver I’ve seen in the intersection. Just this morning, I watched a driver proceed through the intersection with an Ipad raised above his steering wheel. My guess is that he was taking a photograph of the heavy snow that lay like icing on the bare arms of the trees along the avenue. The trees under the snow were pretty, but it amazed me to see a car in motion whose driver was blocking his own sight.

Even more impressive: Last week, as I was driving toward the intersection from the west, a car behind me was tailgating angrily. How adept humans are at conveying the emotion of rage through their handling of an automobile. As we approached the intersection, the light was red. Two cars were already stopped waiting for it to change, and I slowed down to become the third in line. The car behind me, however, accelerated. He veered to the left, into the oncoming traffic lane, and sped past the three of us waiting cars, through the red light, and through the intersection. Keep in mind that he had no visibility of 11th Avenue and only a dozen yards or so of visibility of Prospect Park Southwest beyond the intersection. I wondered if I was going to see poetic justice abruptly rendered.

Can the intersection be made safer? It’s unlikely to win one of the city’s 20 allotted speeding cameras or 150 allotted red-light cameras, whose numbers the State of New York has taken it upon itself to ration, to the city’s detriment. A quick improvement would be to remove a few parking spaces near the corners of the intersection, in order to improve visibility. Even better would be to build in the sort of pedestrian islands that have recently made it safer to cross Prospect Park West. In the meantime, I’ll be keeping my hood down and my eyes peeled, whatever the weather.