In a rush? Sidewalk rage drives pedestrians off the deep end
It might be the tourists in front of you who act like they’ve never seen a building taller than three stories. It might be that elderly lady who just can’t run a 100-yard dash anymore. It might be the teenagers walking six wide down the block like they’re on parade. It might be the hedge fund manager rushing full speed ahead on the wrong half of the sidewalk, “CrackBerry" glued to the side of his head.
For 76-year-old Walburga Schaller, the trigger for a nasty sidewalk altercation was the man glaring at her squarely in the face, just inches away. Schaller had been on her way to the bank that June morning, using a cane to move carefully down the west Toronto street.
On the other end of the street, Robert Smith, 52, was on his way to a medical appointment and also walked with a cane, nursing a foot injury. He walked toward Schaller on the same half of the sidewalk, and like two slow trains on the same track, the two moved inexorably toward a collision.
Neither moved to give way, and they soon stood just inches apart. Insults were exchanged, and then obscenities. Soon the two began hitting each other with their canes, each combatant landing several blows. When it was over Schaller dropped to ground and Smith faced a charge of assault.
Whatever it is that sets someone off, urban residents are no strangers to the pavement equivalent of road rage. Anger experts say that just as with its notorious cousin, sidewalk rage has little to do with the person who just won’t get out of your way, and everything to do with you.
Some 20 percent of pedestrians in crowded areas deviate from the accepted rules of walk on the right, pass on the left, according to Dr. Leon James, a professor of psychology at the University of Hawaii. They may walk “upstream” against the flow of traffic or wander across multiple “lanes” of traffic, frustrating those behind them.
“People are used to this pattern,” James said, “but there are conditions that make them forget, for instance, when they walk in a group, when they don't know where they are going, when they are foreign and use the wrong norms.”
The escalation of an everyday annoyance into a heated confrontation comes from both a sense of entitlement by one or both parties, according to Geraldine Katovich, an anger expert with Anger Clinic in Chicago, an anger counseling center. But Katovich says the root cause of an incident is an individual’s need for control.
“It’s like being in line at the grocery store and someone hits you with their cart to move you up. That reasserts control,” Katovich said. “You think, ‘Did they do that on purpose?’ If they can get you to move up a few inches, they’re re-establishing control.”
The jump to engaging another person depends on an individual’s desire to act out, what Katovich calls “mischief.” The trait stems not from the situation but from a person’s background and upbringing, the core of their personality.
“We’re all mischief makers, we all are, that’s how we show we’re angry,” she said. “It comes down to your attitudes, how you were raised.”
Perhaps nowhere are grumbling pedestrians more at home than on the streets of New York, where 8 million people jockey for position on slabs of pavement that never seem wide enough.
Kelly McMann says she’s been a target of sidewalk rage as a dog walker on the city’s streets, but has also found herself giving it right back.
“I’m from Maine, I’m not used to it; you don’t see it [there],” she said. “Sometimes it catches you off guard; someone says something to you, you might get heated and yell back at them.”
In extreme cases, that appetite for mischief can lead to serious consequences, just as road rage has led to severe injuries and even fatalities. Smith, one of the participants in the Toronto incident, found out how far some sidewalk confrontations can go. Smith admitted hitting Schaller but said he was acting in self-defense. Ontario Court Judge Howard Borenstein apparently wasn’t buying Smith’s story.
In a February judgment, Borenstein found Smith guilty of assault with a weapon in the June 2005 incident and handed him a two-year suspended sentence. But in his decision, Borenstein made it clear that Smith was not the only one to blame for the altercation with Schaller.
“Despite her age, and her cane,” Borenstein said of Schaller, “she is not a shrinking violet.”