It is a commonplace these days that our attention is the most valuable thing we can offer. The internet is driven and monetised by the desire for the attention of an eyeball on an ad for just a moment. We talk about constant distraction, what it does to our brains and to our capacity for empathy and connection; we say we crave the relaxation of an offline experience, but unless we go somewhere where we have no choice, we seem to need to be given permission to actually carry this out.
When I was learning to drive, more than thirty years ago, my father, not known at the best of times for his great empathy towards fellow travellers, told me that the best course of action was that to assume that everyone else on the road is an idiot who is trying to kill you. He raced vintage cars for fun, and took driving very seriously, to the extent that we never listened to the radio when we were on the road as he found it too distracting. I took his advice to the best of my ability as a clueless and somewhat reckless teenager, but it became even more pertinent a few years later when I started riding my bike around London. Three decades later, my main tactic for survival in urban riding is to watch drivers very closely. I listen to cars behind me, have a sixth sense for guessing that someone just ahead of me is about to turn right or pull into a parking space and cut me off, but mostly I watch drivers’ heads. And more and more, what I see is drivers looking down at their laps. When I was riding one time, in one of the outer parts of the city, a driver was actually typing on a laptop as she drove by me, and she seemed surprised that I would be upset by this. I imagine that mostly people are checking maps, but regularly I see them scrolling at stops, and often enough, actually typing while rolling. Whatever they are doing, it means that they are paying less attention to the complex moving parts around them. Mostly I want to say to them, ‘Can’t you just put it down for a moment?’
Within this there is a misguided hierarchy of what deserves our attention. Because so much of driving can be carried out automatically, we can assume it does not need our full ongoing attention. If something new pops up in our feed, or we are getting a test asking us how soon we will be somewhere, we are now attuned to paying attention to that instead. This instinct does not take into account the innumerable variables of moving through a city environment. Whenever I am in a car in the city, with less visibility and restricted sound cues, I find it so much harder to keep track of pedestrians and cyclists than I can do from my position on a bike. So I constantly work to stay focused, and I also make sure I am abiding by the posted speed limit, not just as an awareness practice, but also to work on my kindness and empathy for other more vulnerable people on and around the road.
This graphic, from the SFMTA, is sobering.