My Oddly Specific Fear

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A Very Honest French Sign. St Michel, France, August 2015

A Very Honest French Sign. St Michel, France, August 2015

Most people are scared of something—heights, spiders, committing to a serious relationship, clowns, the Canada Revenue Agency (note the comma between “clowns” and “Canada Revenue Agency”, I don’t want to be audited, thank you), open water, unemployment, mice, failure…

Yes, we are all a little neurotic in our own way.

Well, my fear is oddly specific: I’m scared of cars making a right turn at the red light.

Each country’s set of road rules has a few idiosyncrasies. For instance, French are completely obsessed with “la priorité à droite”, a unique piece of Gallic logic. Basically, the driver emerging from the rightmost road at an intersection has the priority to go cross that intersection first, or even to turn onto another road. So, you may find a driver stops on a larger road to allow a vehicle waiting on a side road to turn onto the larger road. Yes, it defies common sense. The archaic rule is very much still practiced on roundabouts in urban areas and on deserted stretches of roads in rural settings. It keeps foreign drivers on their toes when approaching road junctions, especially on the edge of town, because a driver can jump out from the right and rightfully assume he has the right of way. Bam! Accident.

This is nothing, though. I have been told that entire countries agreed to drive on the wrong side of the road—pure madness! (Just kidding, British Empire.)

In Canada, the rule I hate the most is the “right turn on red”: unless a sign tells you not to, you may make a right turn facing a red light as long as you first come to a complete stop and wait until the way is clear. However, you still have to signal your turn and yield to pedestrians and others using the road.

When I first drove in Canada, I had to make such a turn every day to go home. It was terrifying to see the cars driving at full speed on Merivale and try to ease into the flow traffic as other impatient drivers behind me were honking. “Look, can’t we just be Canadian and wait until the light turns green?” I wanted to shout.

But I hate this “right turn on red” rule even more as a pedestrian. As I wrote above, drivers are supposed to yield to pedestrians who have the green light to cross. But do you know what most drivers do? They forget the mere existence of people without wheels. Their eyes are on the traffic as they try to find a gap in the traffic and turn as quickly as they can. Ooops, too bad, right in front of you, a pedestrian was crossing.

I find myself in this situation every day. I usually try to make eye contact with the driver to remind him that I have the right of way, the “walk” signal, and that I’m crossing the road. “Eh eh, here buddy, look at me!” It doesn’t work very well. Either you look tiny compared to the driver of a badass pickup truck, either the window are tinted, either the driver is on the phone (!) or looking to the opposite direction… it’s very rare that a driver notices my lame attempts at signaling I’m crossing.

Last winter, a car bumped into me making a right turn as I was crossing. She had been looking to the left because she was checking the traffic. I was coming from the right. Oh, she didn’t hurt me at all—fortunately, she turned slowly and I jumped back as soon as it became obvious that she was going to… run over me?

Immediately she stopped the car and backed out.

“Fuck!” I shouted. “Didn’t you see me, lady? Pedestrian green light here!”

To her credit, she seemed genuinely horrified by what could have happened if she has turned faster and hit me at full speed. I wasn’t hurt, I was mad. The bumper had just hit my winter jacket, it was fine. But my heart was beating fast because it had been the third close encounter with a bumper that week.

The woman drove away and my red-light-turn paranoia increased.

The worst part is, I’m not jaywalking. I’m crossing with the light, as I’ve been told when I was a kid. It’s infuriating.

I wish there were more safe spaces for people on foot but I feel the battle is lost here, especially in the suburb. Everybody is driving rather than walking.

Just… just stop scaring me when I cross the street, alright?

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About Author

French woman in English Canada. World citizen, new mom, traveler, translator, writer and photographer. Looking for comrades to start a new revolution.

29 Comments

  1. True, vrai!

    You know, something similar happened with us near Lincoln Fields, the driver was completely absorbed in her attempt to merge into the traffic and she had absolutely no idea that we were trying to cross with a green signal, she didn’t even look back to acknowledge what could have been, and it was scary coz she was driving very fast, at a curve. We are from New Delhi and we should have known better. I get what you are saying, totally.

  2. Oh my, don’t even get me started.. even on my brief visit to Canada I was terrified both as a pedestrian and while driving, I almost had a heart attack when we turned right on a red light! Pheeww… and can we talk about traffic lights? They are located AFTER or in the middle of the crossroads? Very scary. I do however think Canadian drivers are generally much nicer and way more patient than here in Europe.

        • Martin Penwald on

          You want something really scary ? Try Texas. I explain why with an example :

          https://www.google.ca/maps/place/Laredo,+Texas,+%C3%89tats-Unis/@27.6871242,-99.4609972,144m/data=!3m1!1e3!4m2!3m1!1s0x8660c06ca7f93d25:0xb4407a5349567491!6m1!1e1

          On the left of the image, you can see the Interstate 35 (and US-83), it is a standard highway, on the left the southbound direction, a median, and the northbound direction. The truck in the middle of the picture is on the ramp to go to I-35 North, and he comes from the I-35 Frontage Road we can see going diagonally on the right. The frontage road is a bidirectional road (we see it because the middle lines are yellow), so people can come from the north going south. The truck come from the frontage road, and had to cross the opposite lane of it to go on the ramp.
          The trick is that the truck had the right of way to cross the opposite lane, we can see the yield sign for people going south on the frontage road (if the picture has been taken at the same moment, the truck would be on the right of the photo) :

          https://www.google.ca/maps/@27.687246,-99.460486,3a,75y,237.25h,80.5t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1sb_R1OKxN4Dehvj7hwhzqag!2e0!7i13312!8i6656!6m1!1e1

          At that is particularly uncommon outside Texas (a few thing like that in Arkansas, and one particular spot more or less like that in Moose Jaw, SK), and relatively dangerous for drivers not accustomed to Texas.

          • Holy shit! That’s… crazy. It took me a while (yeah, I know…) to get it but I wouldn’t be a happy driver stumbling upon that kind of set up. There is a freaky merging in Ottawa off the 417 at Kirkwood, we try to avoid it whenever possible, even Feng who is a great driver. I think that’s what French call “très accidentogène” (an euphemism often used for stretches of road when drunk drivers kill themselves…)

      • Exactly! In Europe streets are narrower you can easily see everything and have control over it, it’s so much easier to walk bike or drive in Europe. Now in Canada I experienced the fear of too OPEN space (..what’s the opposite of claustrophobia?). I was terrified to cross the street, cars are gigantic and you feel like a tiny little dot crossing a wide street while these tanks are driving by. Terrified I tell you.

        When I came back to Europe suddenly everything seemed so small in comparison. It’s all a matter of perspective and in the end with time you get used to it and it becomes your new “normal” 🙂

        • I feel exactly the same! It’s funny how tiny everything looks in Europe after a while in North America. Places that are usually seen as “far” feel so close, cars are tiny, people are smaller…

          I also understand that fear of large open space.

  3. Martin Penwald on

    Remember : it is NEVER mandatory to do your right turn on a red light. When I passed my truck driver licence in Québec, my instructor told me to never do that for the exam.
    And, drivers who want to do the right turn HAVE TO STOP. It doesn’t look that a lot of them are aware of this rule. It is very dangerous to be a pedestrian or a biker because car drivers are not accustomed to see them.

    • This is a very good point. It’s a convenience, I guess, not a rule. I know you can’t turn on red on Montreal island, but what about other provinces, monsieur le chauffeur?

      On a side note, I have to say I find truck drivers are really good with pedestrians. It’s always scary to see these huge trucks in the parking lot (delivering) or on the road, but they always pay attention… at least to me!

      • Martin Penwald on

        Québec has been the last province to authorize red light turn, and Montréal Island is the only part of North America (Canada+USA) that forbid right turn on red without further warning. I forgot one time, but fortunately, there was no cop. And there was no traffic because other directions had a left arrow, so my turn was protected. But it was not legal.

        A right turn is not an easy manœuvre for a truck, because we can’t look directly the trailer, and mirrors do not offer a wide enough point of view. So we have to be careful. And car drivers should not try to pass a truck on the right. This summer, one of my colleague caught a cop like that. The police car was brand new. Hu hu hu …

        • Ooops. I wouldn’t like to get into an accident with a cop… talk about awkward…

          Do you find traffic rules vary a lot from one state/province to another? I’m not surprise the right turn on red is a Quebec exception. One among many…

          • Basically, there are not much differences, and I often use standard rules.
            For example, up to very recently, it was not mandatory to change lane when passing an emergency vehicule in Québec, but I always do that everywhere as a safety rule.

            It can become weird when driving oversized loads, rules changes from state to state (or province). Example : a load which is over 260cm wide is always (I mean, everywhere in Canada and USA) an oversized load, but in Alberta, you don’t have to put an oversized load sign if the load is less than 305cm wide (but you are still under overdimensional permit), and when you cross the border in Montana or BC, you have to put the signs (and it seems that it is forbidden to have them in Alberta if the load is oversized but less than 305cm wide). In some jurisdiction, you can drive at night, in some you can’t and in others it depends. And night can be defined as the time between legal sunset to legal sunrise OR ½ hour after sunset to ½ hour before sunrise, depending of the jurisdiction, but weather conditions can change it.
            And I don’t even talk of escort requirements, the Montana’s DW21 condition or the LSD charged routing of Texas DOT.

  4. I totally wait until the light is green most of the time still! I let people honk me if they will but unless it is totally clear then I am not making that right turn!

  5. I haven’t commented here in a while, but I just wanted to say that I hate right-hand turns in Canada as well. In fact, when I was a child, I was hit by a car turning right on a red light at the intersection of Woodroffe and Georgina Dr as I was walking to school. I don’t think I have to tell you that you should educate Mark as soon as possible about the danger of crossing the street and the red light rule. I remember my mother had told me that I had to wait patiently for the red man to change to green and then it was safe to cross. She never told me about the red light right turn because she is not a pedestrian. Like you said, drivers are not used to pedestrians because so few people walk so my mother never thought to warn me because she just doesn’t know.

    When the car hit me, it didn’t stop – whoever it was just kept going. I wasn’t seriously hurt, bruised and shaken, and I stood at the corner for a while before getting the courage to cross again. I didn’t tell my mother because I honestly thought it was an error that I had made and I didn’t want her yelling at me about it. That’s how I learned to always make eye contact with the driver before crossing, no matter what, even if it takes a long time.

    • Hey you! It’s been ages! I noticed you haven’t blogged in… a year or so? What’s up with your life and all?

      I’m sorry you had to experience this, especially as a kid. Right after writing this article, I had another car hit me in a parking lot, same story, I’m glad he wasn’t going fast. I was making eye contact, I was walking and he just rammed into me. Asshole. I’m fucking crossing can’t you see?!

  6. I agree right turns on red lights can be dangerous but it does speed up the flow of traffic. The driver is still at fault if he runs over the pedestrian but the pedestrian could be dead right.

    In Edmonton, I liked the traffic circles because they made for more efficent movement of traffic. Sadly they had to remove them because most people didn’t know how to drive in them. You have to yield to the inside lane.. It may seem obvious, how else would the inside lane ever get out, but a lot of people get confused and panic.

    I didn’t know that Ontario is the only provice where traffice signs and rules don’t apply in private property parking lots. It is a wonder that aren’t more accidents there. You could even drive without a licence in the mall parking lot. In some cases the mall can ask local authorities to make laws applicable so it is not all Wild West or I should say Wild East,

    “In Ontario, traffic signs and speed limits in parking lots aren’t enforceable,” says Terry L. Fox, manager of the legal advisory department for the Canadian Automobile Association (CAA) of South Central Ontario. “

    Are you going to be watching the REDBLACKS vs the Eskimoes in Winterpeg on Sunday? I am glad that Ottawa quit using the name Roughriders when Saskatchewan already had the name. It made for a lot of confusion during games between Ottawa and Saskatchewan. ” The Roughriders just took the ball from the Roughriders”

    • Feng wanted to go see the game last Sunday, I refused. There is NO WAY I’m standing outside when it’s below 10C. I’m sorry. Not Canadian enough. And I feel sorry for those attending in Winterpeg… aren’t you cold??

      I didn’t know about private parking lots either!

      France has a lot of roundabouts. A small city close to Nantes where I grew up has the country’s record number of them. There is one I know of in Ottawa and drivers here are clearly not used to it.

  7. It will only be -2C on Sunday in Winnipeg. Winnipeg is famous for hosting the coldest Grey Cup on record. At the 79th Grey Cup in 1991, the temperature at kickoff was -18 C? I think that most of the crowd bring their own antifreeze or drink enough beforehand that they don’t feel the cold.

  8. I used to complaint about the roundabout in France but now I just love them. Why wait in front of a red traffic light while there is no car cutting your lane? However, the priority to the right scared me. I got blocked on this rule and didn’t dare to drive at the beginning of my years here.

    When I drove in Austin, I found turning right on a red light kind of cool. But I didn’t drive much towards downtown, places where I went, there were not much pedestrians, everyone was driving.

    • It took me a long time to appreciate the value of roundabouts in France, but now I get it. That said, every driver has to be comfortable with them otherwise the flow of traffic is awful (like it in in Ottawa with the one roundabout).

  9. So you don’t have tickets to Winnipeg to cheer on the Redblacks this Grey Cup Sunday. Don’t despair, football fans. There are plenty of ways to witness history right here at home.
    Party at TD Place

    Everyone’s invited to the arena at TD Place to take in the big game on a massive, high-definition screen. The Redblacks’ Grey Cup viewing party starts at 5 p.m. Concessions will be open, mascots and cheerleaders will be on hand and there will be bouncy castles for the kids.

    The party’s free, but you need to book a ticket. That will also get you a free ride on OC Transpo, but if you prefer to drive you can reserve a parking spot at Lansdowne Park for $15.

    Is this indoors?

    • Nope, outdoor stadium, the brand new one. But we are lazy people anyway, Feng is actually watching the end of the game on TV as I’m typing this 😉

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