Not long ago I couldn't help but notice some additions to the downtown Covington area. Near the town square, at corners featuring pedestrian crosswalks but lacking traffic signals, spiffy new signs have sprouted in the middle of the street. These signs are rectangular in shape, appear as little columns in the center of the street, are bright yellow and white and feature a miniature STOP sign near the top of the column.
Neat black print, large enough for even those of us wearing trifocal glasses to read, informs that a new state law requires vehicular traffic to stop for any pedestrian traffic in those clearly marked crosswalks.
Ladies and gentlemen, sports fans, boys and girls of all ages: please be informed that as a community service I feel compelled to offer the following sage advice, gleaned from personal experience just the day before yesterday.
The law pertaining to vehicular traffic yielding to pedestrians in crosswalks pertains only to those clearly marked crosswalks at intersections having no traffic signals. If the intersection has a traffic signal, the traffic signals govern vehicular traffic and right-of-way.
Most drivers grant pedestrians the right of way in cases where people are trying to cross the street at a busy city intersection. But that's out of courtesy.
Vehicles are not required to stop at any intersection which is equipped with a traffic signal, just because a pedestrian has decided to cross the street.
I'm laboring to share this with you, friend, because of a near-miss encounter I had last Friday. Please bear with me a little longer for this, as you may suspect, involves more than a mundane traffic rule. It involves sanctity of life and racial relations between white and black folks in the Deep South.
There I was, minding my own business - fat, dumb and happy. It was my day off. Believe me, after the snow and "de-ice event" at Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport last Wednesday night, I needed a day off. Some may know that my real job is that of a tower coordinator at the airport, and without going into detail and naming names for those who were in charge and dropped the ball and should be strapped over a bed of glowing embers for eternity for their shoddy performance, I'm happy not to be working this weekend as more bad weather is predicted.
Alas, I digress.
So there I was, as is my wont on my days off, driving the Jeep with the doors off despite the temperature. I like to put on my heavy Indiana University jacket, gloves and cap, turn up the heat full blast, and drive about our town and county whilst thinking of things to write about for this column. I have found this to be even more pleasant when indulging in sustenance prepared by others, and thus my first stop on such mornings is usually the local Chick-fil-A in Newton Plaza on U.S. Highway 278.
The proprietor of our Chick-fil-A is a guy named Tracy Roper, who is as fine a Christian businessman as you'll ever meet. Tracy has undertaken to help his church build a Christian school on the outskirts of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and does a whole lot of good behind the scenes right here in Newton County. Just one example is the "athlete of the week" award for kids who turn in outstanding performances and which Chick-fil-A sponsors. Tracy also makes it possible for kids who want to make the most of their potential to do so by working at Chick-fil-A and then taking advantage of that company's educational programs.
But, alas, I digress once more.
So there I was - fat, dumb and happy - driving northward on Church Street through the historic and picturesque town square which makes Covington the picture-postcard-most-best-place to be in the entire known universe. Continuing north as Church becomes Pace Street, I approached the intersection with Usher Street. The traffic signal displayed that spectacular shade of green particular to traffic signals, but as I proceeded, I noticed two young black males approaching the crosswalk from the east, in front of the new county administrative complex.
The young men were clad in fashionable contemporary garb, with pants down about their knees, and adorned with probably five pounds or more each of "bling" about their necks. Of more concern to me, however, was the fact that they both were walking purposefully out into the crosswalk. From their mannerisms, they had no intention of pausing despite the fact that they had a red light and the pedestrian walkway sign was flashing that yellow palm warning pedestrians to yield.
Human life is the most precious thing, don't you agree?
Even as I took in the situation, I decided that who was right and who was wrong was secondary in nature to the preservation of human life. But, given the proximity of the two young men to the curb and my Jeep's momentum through the intersection - let me remind you that I had the green light - I decided to continue and to steer slightly away from the pedestrians to assure their safety. In doing so, I passed within 10 feet of the young men, but still well on my side of the yellow line marking the middle of the thoroughfare.
All had transpired nicely, I thought. The pedestrians were safe and still free to do whatever they wished with their own lives. I was through the intersection and on my way.
But, wait! As I passed the young men, they began to yell profanities at me. I looked in the mirror, and they were gesturing angrily at me as if I'd done something wrong.
Immediately, if not sooner, I decided to stop and return to explain to these guys just exactly what the situation was. But there was traffic behind me and no place to pull over. So I continued down toward the railroad tracks, turned left at the cable TV building, and went around the block. My intention was to return and find the pedestrians, and explain it to them.
Alas, they were nowhere to be found. This was quite upsetting to me, as any time people wave at me with their middle fingers while shouting profanities in my direction, I feel it to be a community service to resolve peacefully the situation in person instead of allowing it to escalate.
By this time, I was no longer fat, dumb and happy. I was inordinately irritated, as these two idiots had almost ruined my day through either ignorance of the law, or abject disdain for it.
However, there's always a silver lining, isn't there?
Unable to locate the bling-laden, pants-around-the-knees brothers, I decided to continue on to Chick-fil-A. There I was treated, as it always happens, as if I were a king or something. And that's one thing that keeps me going back to Chick-fil-A. They always act as if they're glad I'm there, as if they know I could spend my money at any one of hundreds of other eateries, as if they actually care about preparing my food exactly as I ordered it.
It's like the customer really matters. What a concept.
This, as you might suspect, weighs heavily on my mind after the debacle that was the "de-icing event" at Hartsfield last Wednesday night. How can the traveling public endure such treatment at the hands of those they've paid to transport them safely, and in a timely manner, to their destination?
Alas, I digress once more.
Anyway, I got my Chick-fil-A food and headed home. On the way I decided to stop by the headquarters of the finest police department in all of America, the Covington Police Department.
Alighting from the Jeep, I approached two officers and inquired earnestly as to the rules governing the new rectangular, column-mounted, yellow-and-white pedestrian crosswalk signs. I told them of the aforementioned incident and asked if my understanding of traffic law was correct, or if I owed an apology to the two young black males who had cursed at me and made obscene gestures in my direction.
The two officers assured me that my understanding of traffic law is correct. I told them that I'd write my Sunday column about it, in the spirit of giving back to the community.
So, here's the deal, folks. Pedestrians and vehicular traffic at intersections equipped with traffic signals are governed by the electronic traffic signal displays. Pedestrians and vehicular traffic at clearly delineated crosswalks in locations not equipped with electronic traffic signals but displaying the neat new column-mounted, rectangular, yellow-and-white signs warning vehicles to yield to pedestrians in the crosswalk are governed by the neat new signage.
Now, in an effort to bring the races closer together, let me say that I did not recognize the two young black men. I've taught and coached several thousand young black men in the 26 years I spent in the social studies classrooms of Georgia's public schools. But I didn't recognize these two guys. I'm thinking they didn't know me, either, and they may have assumed that an old white guy in a Jeep was trying to run them down just because they were black. And maybe that's why they cursed at me and made obscene gestures in my direction.
But the truth I wish to share on this day simply boils down to three things. Ignorance of the law is no excuse for being stupid. Walking out in front of a moving vehicle is a good way to get your fanny run over. And finally, if there's a next time, making obscene gestures while shouting profanities toward an old guy in a two-ton Jeep might not be the smartest move to make.
Nat Harwell is a Newton County resident whose column appears Sundays in The Covington News.