Caution: Uppity pedestrians ahead

by Martha Rowen

(Originally appeared on the Op-Ed Page of the Philadelphia Daily News, March 21, 2001. The name of the "uppity pedestrian" was subsequently replaced by a pseudonym at the individual's request.)

As the nation was still reeling from the schoolyard shooting in San Diego, it must have been disturbing for Philadelphians to learn that they can be threatened by guns even in their cars, that most sacrosanct of realms.

News reports told of the sentencing of a gun-toting attorney, Eric Sternenzelt. Last June, when a car drove dangerously close to him as he attempted to cross the street, Sternenzelt, who describes himself as an "aggressive pedestrian," pulled a gun from his briefcase. Judge Gerald Corso sentenced him recently to up to 23 months in jail for simple assault and reckless endangerment. The judge said he wanted to bring home to Sternenzelt "the seriousness of this kind of conduct."

"Pedestrian Gets Jail for Aggressive Act," read one headline. The very words "aggressive pedestrian" are jarring. We all know how pedestrians are supposed to behave. They are expected to wait meekly on the sidewalk until the flow of cars comes to a halt. Proper pedestrians allow drivers who are especially pressed for time to speed through a red light. Conscientious pedestrians make eye contact to gain permission to step off the curb. But this pedestrian, quoted as saying "You drive nice and I'll walk nice," apparently does not know his place.

No, Eric Sternenzelt is hardly a nice guy and certainly not a well-behaved pedestrian. The driver, according to Sternenzelt's account, had threatened to follow him home and put a bullet in his head, but that is beside the point. After all, Sternenzelt did wield a gun, a .357 Magnum at that, against an unarmed driver.

But wait a minute. The driver was armed. He was in possession of a 2-ton motorized device that can crush a human body in seconds. As any emergency-room physician can attest, a motor vehicle can be every bit as deadly as a machine gun.

Not too long ago, in Costa Mesa, Calif., a driver slammed his car intentionally into a day-care playground, killing four. Last month, a college student deliberately drove onto a crowded Santa Barbara sidewalk, leaving five people dead. When a teen uses a gun to kill students in a high school, America is aghast, the president calls for healing, and the media have a field day. But the same act with a car goes almost unnoticed. If even these spectacular cases do not attract wide attention, how much less do we notice the daily violence inflicted on pedestrians by reckless and careless drivers?

But for many, such violence is a constant reality. A terrified elderly man almost hit by a car speeding through a yellow light has been as brutally threatened as if held at gunpoint. Equally frightening is the intimidation of a mother who is forced to yank her child back onto the curb when a car turns aggressively into a crosswalk. Such events are commonplace. So common in fact, they hardly register on our collective awareness.

All over America, when drivers mow down pedestrians and bicyclists, they are seldom prosecuted unless they are drunk or perhaps guilty of another crime as well. Even then, sentencing is rare and likely to be lenient. The pedestrian-rights group, Right of Way, found drivers at least partly culpable in up to 90 percent of New York City pedestrian fatalities over a four-year period. Yet, in only 16 percent of cases were drivers even ticketed for a moving violation. New York is hardly unique.

Almost 5,000 pedestrians are injured and more than 200 are killed each year in Pennsylvania. The majority of those injuries occur on neighborhood streets, most commonly when a car fails to yield to a pedestrian in a crosswalk.

Last November in Allentown, Pa., a woman driving drunk hit and seriously injured her friend and then drove away. She was sentenced to 92 days' house arrest, community service, probation and a fine.

Yet here, in the case of aggressive pedestrian Sternenzelt, the judge felt bound to sentence him to up to 23 months of prison time to give him a "vivid understanding" of the seriousness of his offense.

Philadelphia drivers will no doubt take comfort from the fact that Sternenzelt received swift and certain justice, a judicial act that should send a warning to other uppity pedestrians.

They may, however, feel uneasy about his plans to direct his energies into pedestrian advocacy in the future. With strong-willed pedestrians like him out there organizing, who knows what might come of it?

The public may even begin to expect motorists to "drive nice."

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