Monday, September 23, 2013

Crossing The Street With Neither Guard Nor Signal

Dear Ibby, 
So I have what should be a really simple question to answer, and yet...maybe not. 
It's about crossing a busy crosswalk without adult assistance. My 12-year-old son just started middle school; to get him there, I drop him off at a busy corner with a crosswalk. Only difference from elementary school is that there's no crossing guard. 
This morning, he was the only one in the crosswalk, and with my "cross safely" ringing in his ears he...stopped. Waited for the cars there to go. They waited for him. The drivers started waving him across. But he, of course, was not looking at the drivers. He was just waiting. Honking started. I finally rolled down the window and said, "OK, go ahead, safe to cross!" And he, without looking first to be sure nothing had changed while I said that, darted across. Something about the whole thing worried me. 
My question then: How do I teach him to look INSIDE the cars to see if the driver sees him, if the driver is waving him on, if the driver is NOT seeing him and is about to drive forward, etc.? This is going to come up when he starts to drive, too. Is there a simple way to address this tendency to just think, "the rule is that I can go when there are no cars at the crosswalk" or something like that, and not to adjust depending on the situation? Most mornings, he won't the be only one crossing. But when he is...I need him to be safe, and I can't think of a single simple "rule" he can use; the situation is always different, and I won't always be situated so I can direct him from my own car. Ideas? And THANK YOU.
[Visual image of an official DOT crosswalk sign, person in silhouette crossing street on yellow background]
Dear Lori, 
This is a great and useful question that is the opposite of a simple question! You are right! Should be: isn't.
So I wracked my brains trying to remember how I found out about looking inside of the car to see if they can see you and whether they are going to run over you about it, and could not do it by myself. So I called up the person who would have taught this information to me! (This is the key to good research skills, by the way. If you know who knows, it's as good as knowing it yourself.)
My mom said it made total sense to not want to be embarrassing him by being the hand-holdy mother all draped over his business if there are other kids around, but when there are no other kids, this will work better with you not in the car, because he can follow your head with his head and hear your words up close.  You narrate with him what to do, always using the same words, never changing it up.  "Look left, look right, look left again. Are there any cars? Neither side? Safe to cross. A stopped car nearby? Look inside. Can the driver see you? How do you know? Smiling and waving and not going? OK to start. Now look back right. A stopped car? Can he see you?" Etc. In the car on the way there you can do this decision chart. He will know it in his head when he is with the other kids and you can hide and watch from your car to feel better, but he should get it pretty soon and get comfy.
When my mom was telling me about the above I started remembering it, the rhythm of it. As a matter of fact my mom had to get off the phone pretty quick but I suspect she stealthily slipped a bunch of good manners information into these rhythmic safety algorithms. (As you are reading this, Mom, note that I gotcha.) Because I have a dim memory of this being around the time I learned the thank-you wave that I still to this day use while I myself am driving, or when I do have the pedestrian right of way on a crowded urban turn lane and the driver did smile and wave me through, but it is still nice to acknowledge not being run over.
I am a very safe walker and driver now, and polite, and also very good with algorithms such as who goes where on a broken signal light. I am, astonishingly, not the one who gets confused in such situations.
Neither will your son be.  There is a bright side to all of this.  :)
(In other related news: Another thing I have to remember to this day is how to act like I am trying to cross the street instead of trying to randomly loiter in the general vicinity. This is another issue I don't know if he has, but it might be a thing.  Look purposeful about I Am Crossing The Street Just So You Know and the car drivers will be more likely to Take Notice.)
Write back and let me know how it all goes?
Love, Ib
O and PS: If this is not quick enough, remember that you can buy time by rousing the neighborhood and agitating for a traffic light.  Let me know if this is something you want to do and I will put you in touch with some people who have done it and know exactly how to make it happen.


  1. Thank you! Great ideas all, especially about practicing. This isn't really a spot where a traffic light would make any sense, but I will keep that option in my back pocket if needed!

  2. I just thought of another thing. I know left and right by this: when I make the sign language letter L with my left hand, it is not backwards, but if I try it with my right hand, it is; therefore, backwards of that is the right hand. But my awesome friend Kassiane makes customized bracelets in a variety of ways that make this work. They can be very secretive and I think also quite manly. So the "left" and "right" stuff has to work for the person in order to have it work. I'm so good at L and R right now that I can sort of do the L hand in my head, if that makes sense...unless I'm stressed, in which case I know to bust out the maneuver. All practice actions are great to do in situations of low stress. OK, love! Thanks for answering back, I love it when people do that!! xxoo

  3. This probably isn't what you want to hear, but it is the truth.

    I'm an autistic adult who navigates the world on foot and I drive, even. And I cannot interpret hand or face signals given by people in cars. I can see through the window that there is a person there, and sometimes I see a hand waving, but I can't figure out if they are waving for me to go, or for me to stay.

    When I was learning to drive, I would see my father gesture and respond to other drivers gesturing, and I was mesmerized at how he could see and interpret their gestures, but I haven't figured it out for myself. I'm not great at interpreting gestures and facial expressions otherwise, but I'm not horrid, either, so I don't know what it is about people through car windows, but there it is.

    So I wait.

    I wait until I feel safe to cross, if on foot, or to turn, if in car. Sometimes the cars honk at me. I respond by stepping back if on foot so they know that I am not about to walk out in front of them. Sometimes I wave at them in what I hope is a "you go" motion. If in a car, I can't take a step back but I can stay put and sometimes the cars behind me honk, but I still wait until I am comfortable. (This also means I avoid intersections without left turn lights. I'm an adult. I can choose to drive a mile out of my way if needed.)

    The big trick for waiting, if on foot, is to wait far enough back from the curb that cars don't think you are about to cross. This mostly eliminates the honking. It might mean waiting a little longer, or even waiting for another person to come along who can mindread cars better and cross with them. But otherwise, one really can wait until there are no cars. One may be waiting awhile, but the waiting is much calmer and more pleasant most of the time than standing there trying to mind-read a car.

    1. Same here. They are too much obscured and too distant to see what facial signals I can see. I didn't cross streets alone till I was about 20 and I will still usually avoid doing so in a non-lighted intersection if I can.

    2. I have an issue with this as well.

      I fully understand that I should be looking at drivers because there's some way that they signal their intentions using body language. Unfortunately, there's a slight problem with that: I was never taught the rules of driver body language, so it's pretty much a random guess for me even if I'm looking straight at them. I have no idea whether a wave means "go", "stop", or even just "hello"... and I've learned from experience that what I think is a "go" signal often isn't.

      And that's assuming my visual processing is unscrambled enough that I can even identify the gesture the driver is making, or where the driver is looking, in the first place. Which, too, is not always a guarantee.

      Also, there's an issue of reaction time. Sometimes, by the time I've managed to see, decipher, and react to a driver's gesture, the driver has interpreted the delay as a signal that they're free to go. (Ever been on a conference call where there's a delay and people end up talking over each other as a result? Yeah, it's kind of like that.)

    3. Yes, in reality my problem is more as Codeman38 describes and less actually thinking that I need to mind-read the car. It just comes off as having the same effect.

      I can't reliably
      see the gesture
      put it into whole words/sentences in my brain (how I respond to visual information, works better with not-moving information)
      interpret the meaning of the words/sentences
      respond appropriately

      in any sort of way that is useful in real-time. So even if I had a tutorial of "go" waves and "stop" waves and "my turn" waves, it still probably wouldn't be practical for me to use with real, live cars.


    4. As for me, when I signal to a driver I'm not ready to cross I take out my iPod and start fidgeting with it, or I even drop down and check my shoes laces. I might even step back and turn to the side. All tells the driver I'm not actually going to cross yet.
      I have sensory difficulties too. So if cars are coming from more than the up/down or right/left direction I may not even see it to begin with.

  4. Dear nightengalesknd,

    This is a brilliant post, and needs to be heard, and it is so important that I am going to write another article about it and make that one be on We Are Like Your Child crossposted, because it is such a seriously important piece of truth that we all have somewhere.

    Thank you SO much for putting it on here.

    Now I'm going to talk to Lori again.

    For me, it was not such a step to be able to grok that people were driving the cars (even though I have only very recently and only partially let go of the idea that machines are sentient) because I had the notion already of how a cowboy communicates with his horse, and the cowboy decides. But you can hear nightengalesknd say above clear as a bell that what my mother taught me to do seems like "trying to mind-read a car."

    I want to talk you about this, Lori, because when you are narrating what you are doing, and doing it alongside, and teaching rhythmically, you will be able to tell which one of us your son is more like, in the department of how this seems.

    "Can he see you?" "I don't know." "Wave and smile?" "He's a car." Etc. I mean this can take a lot of other forms, but you as a mother will know if this is a non-starter after trying for a while. Do write back because I have a lot of friends who are full of ideas, and honest awesome people with different experiences who can tell you what things are like for them.

    Nightengalesknd above mentions the stepping back and waiting, which is the complement (opposite, sort of) to Looking Like You Are Crossing, and is a great workaround. Being able to wait is one I use myself in other situations of confusingness. Waiting can be immensely relaxing, and life-saving.

    The important thing to note is that when we come upon the kind of thing we really have a sort of block against learning in the usual ways of doing them, such as for example this, which is perfect: to me it is sign language; to nightengalesknd it is mindreading cars-- and the latter is clearly not a thing one can be expected to learn-- there is no shame in The Workaround.

    This is so important that I will write a different whole article about this tomorrow. Since I write from my own experience, I will write about myself and Time. My life with Time is a Giant Workaround.

    Thank you, nightengalesknd! When we tell the truth we change the world!


  5. Thank you SO MUCH. I've been wondering how to begin approaching this with my 7-year-old daughter, and these tips are really, really useful.

  6. Wonderful post. My son is 13. He is usually with one of us when he crosses the street but is getting to the point where he walks ahead and soon will want to go by himself.

  7. I made a flow chart (I <3 flow charts and use them for everything).

    LOOK. Is street clear? IF yes, THEN cross. IF no, THEN stop.
    Is there a signal button? IF yes, THEN push the button and proceed to next step. If no, proceed to next step.
    LOOK AGAIN. Are cars in both directions stopped? IF yes, THEN cross. IF no, THEN wait. Repeat this question until cars in both directions are stopped or until I get impatient. If I get impatient, proceed to next step.
    IF taking a long time, THEN point at other side of street to signal intention to cross.
    LOOK. Has closest side to you stopped? IF yes, then cross halfway and wait for other side to stop. When they stop, jog across quickly.
    IF takes too long, THEN detour to an intersection with a set of lights and a walk signal.

    ... it works for me. Drivers in my city are pretty rude, so you may want to adapt to your city's driving culture.

    1. Note: Them being rude is why I wait until they're completely stopped. Because sometimes they see you and try to beat you through the intersection anyway, and I've had a few close calls that way and I don't want to have the experience of a car's side mirror ruffling my jacket at 70km/h again. Ever. Terrifying.

  8. Ib, it was your post about your relative time-blindness that led me to a huge epiphany about my boy recently, so you've already done more to help me than I could have imagined! Thanks, also, to all of your commenters here; I've already started working with him on crossing cross walks and even just regular corners in our neighborhood (where he'd have to travel half a mile or so to get to one with a light at it, so he does need to know how to navigate without really rigid rules to follow). All of these tips are making a huge difference. Now I'll definitely have to ask him what HE sees when he looks into the cars. I wonder if he's only seeing the car and not the person in it?

    Also, I walk miles and miles every week in our neighborhood, and even I have trouble being certain what a driver is intending to do as they barrel toward me. I've always been a fan of the 'stepping back' technique to get them to just move along and leave the road clear for me to cross without panicking. People are hard to read, period!

    Thanks again, everyone!

  9. I use moving back to mean "I'm not going now" as a pedestrian. It's a bit more complicated because I use a wheelchair and the curb ramp is often at the corner instead of the crosswalk. While I can interpret drivers' expressions and the direction of their gaze, they're usually out of sight from my seated position.

    When I want cars to stop for me, I move from the sidewalk into the street. I put my hat in my hand, look straight at the windshield of the nearest moving car, and wave my hand&hat back and forth through 45° in the plane of the crosswalk. In my experience, cars which slow down in response to this wave almost always stop. I begin to move in front of the slowing car and direct my attention to the nearest car in the opposite lane.

    1. Bid for their attention
    2. Act on the bid.
    3. Move lane by lane.

    I wish all drivers would respond by holding their palms up above the wheel. Can't steer with no hands on the wheel would mean OK I'm waiting for you.

  10. 33 years old, still have trouble navigating the crosswalk in front of my office. I think I do okay, but it's awkward every time.