I fear certain things.
Flying, illness, rodents, huge waves and crowds top the list.
But one of my biggest fears is losing my eyesight. Don’t get me wrong. I love the sound of a symphony, a great guitar riff, robins in spring, and even a rooster’s wakeup call.
But eyesight? That’s the one. I hate darkness, so the concept of dimmed or no vision frightens me. I read The Miracle Worker in third grade and ran into our family room asking my mom to check my lower eyelids for granules. Helen Keller’s lower lids were grainy. I wanted to make sure mine were smooth, pink and normal.
I’ve always taken pride in my eyesight, as if I did something to deserve it. People with sharp eyes do this. We pride ourselves on our hand-eye coordination and knack for finding golf balls in four inches of rough under a leaf. We’re proud of our ability to see road signs at night, the hawk hiding in the trees, or the seal in the surf.
Good vision is a gift, but certainly not an entitlement. The Curmudgeon has worn glasses since he was a kid and has more eye appointments in one year than I’ve had in the last decade. He’s worn contacts for so long that his eyes are rebelling, becoming prone to irritation, infection and occasional blurriness. He sees OK, but when his eyes hurt we all suffer because he’s miserable.
Like a lot of things in life, we don’t appreciate eyesight until it’s compromised or gone. My mom has three close friends with macular degeneration who can’t do things they enjoy, like sewing, crocheting and reading. But the biggest loss is their inability to drive and independence. They rely on friends or strangers to grocery shop, go to doctors’ appointments or the hair salon. Otherwise, they’re pretty much stuck.
One of mom’s friends was so upset when her daughter took away her keys that she kept her car in the garage, occasionally pulling it out to start it up. I get it. I’m one of those people who feels trapped when my car’s in the shop for a few days. I get uneasy. I want it there, even if I don’t use it.
I have a friend we’ll call Amy who was born with a genetic disorder that limits her vision. She’s legally blind, so she can’t drive, cruise beaches or dash to the mall for a new party outfit. Though she’s a go-getter – she just returned to college to get her degree after taking time off for kids – she mainly walks or gets rides.
Trouble is, we live in suburbia. Out here, you need a car. I put about 20,000 miles on my car driving kids to activities every year. The Curmudgeon accuses me of driving around aimlessly, but seriously? No one in their right mind would do that. You know those oval magnets with the names of high school sports teams on the back of cars? They’re our merit badges for hours of driving to practices and games.
Amy is one of a very few pedestrians here. She walks to destinations in Guilford, where she grew up the youngest of four daughters. Her parents still live in the ranch-style house where she was raised. They give her rides, but they’re getting older and have health issues of their own. Amy volunteers two days a week at the town’s social services department, where she greets clients and does office work. It’s a five minute walk from her condo, but it means crossing a busy street.
Amy has complained that drivers don’t stop despite a freshly-painted crosswalk and two yellow signs pointing it out. I wanted to see for myself. I am, after all, a Sound Runner ambassador. Part of our mission is promoting pedestrian safety. I’ve been passionate about this issue since I covered the trial of a drunk driver who struck a 13-year-old boy as he walked with friend in Milford, CT. The boy later died.
The case has stayed with me for 30 years because of the boy. He was 13 and walking in his neighborhood. Just a kid in the wrong place at the wrong time. It could be any of us or our kids.
The case underscores the dangers we face sharing the road with cars. I don’t know any serious cyclist who hasn’t been hit by a car. Several runners I know head to trails or use treadmills because the roads are too dangerous.
I wanted to see for myself, so I met Amy last week after her shift ended. Carrying her white cane, she stood at the crosswalk and waited. A half-dozen cars sped by in both directions before a guy in a white truck stopped. Amy had to wait another 30 seconds until a car in the other direction stopped.
We ran this experiment a few times and it confirmed what Amy’s been saying: most drivers are oblivious to pedestrians, too focused on their own thoughts, phones or agendas. Part of the problem is there are so few pedestrians that people aren’t programmed to watch for them. Drivers aren’t changing so car companies are. Lexus has equipped its new line with sensors to detect pedestrians. The car blasts warnings and starts to brake if the driver doesn’t react in time. I can’t decide if this is brilliant or a terribly sad commentary on drivers today.
Every fall when we turn back clocks, pedestrians are struck. Drivers complain that it’s pedestrians’ fault – why aren’t they wearing reflective gear, carrying flashlights or using headlamps? They have a point – pedestrians must make themselves visible. They should also follow the rules of the road: pedestrians face traffic, cyclists go with it.
Everybody needs to step it up. Wear reflective gear to make yourself visible to drivers. Slap-on reflective armbands, wristbands and ankle bands are inexpensive, and just a little badass. So are reflective shirts, belts, running shoes, and LED lights that clip onto clothing, baby carriages and dogs’ collars.
“People have to be aware all the time whether they’re walking or driving,” said Janice Heggie Margolis, executive director of MADD’s Connecticut chapter. She noted that drunk drivers tend to veer toward objects in their peripheral vision, making pedestrians and cyclists prime targets. MADD’s East Haven, CT., headquarters is lined with photos of DWI victims who were killed while walking or standing outside their cars.
Unfortunately, we’re living in an age of defensive walking. Are you ready for battle?