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Luskin: Law Abiding Citizens

04/02/12 7:55AM By Deborah Luskin
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(Host) Commentator Deborah Lee Luskin is a novelist, essayist and educator who lives near Brattleboro, where three recent pedestrian fatalities have started her thinking about the connection between being a good driver and being a good citizen.
(Luskin) When I'm a pedestrian in downtown Brattleboro, I'm often in a state of heightened irritation at drivers who don't stop when I have the right-of-way at a crosswalk. For years, I've stared down drivers, willing them to stop as I assert my right to cross. Most drivers do stop, and many do so politely. Some drivers, though, exhibit attitude, as if stopping for a pedestrian is a terrible inconvenience. I give them attitude right back - although I'm smart enough to do it from the curb.

But when I'm driving in downtown Brattleboro, I'm often in a heightened state of irritation at the pedestrians who cross in the middle of the street. I've even seen parents with young children do this, and it takes all my self-control not to roll down my window and give them a tongue-lashing.

What bothers me about drivers who don't stop for pedestrians and about pedestrians who don't use crosswalks is really about something bigger than street safety. It's about following the law. So when I see a parent jaywalking with a child in tow, I don't just see immediate, dangerous behavior; I see a parent teaching a child that it's okay to break the law. Likewise, when a driver with kids in the car deliberately ignores stop signs, traffic lights, crosswalks and - yes - even speed limits, that driver is teaching those children that breaking laws is okay. And to listen to most people who are ticketed for speeding or arrested for driving under the influence is to hear a tale not of wrong doing, but of getting caught - as if the guilt is all in being apprehended.

What's true for traffic laws also seems to be true for taxes; people seem to think it's okay not to pay them. One of my children has been offered a job as a nanny, and her employer wants to pay her under the table, in cash. This may be common practice, but it's also illegal, and I've urged my daughter to ask her employer to reconsider. Technically, the employer should contribute half the social security and Medicare liability and withhold the other half from my daughter's wages. There are lots of reasons why the Medicare Trust Fund is running out of money; the failure to report income and pay taxes are among them.

If it sounds like I'm a goody-two-shoes, then maybe I am. But I'm a staunch believer in both civil rights and civil responsibility. And civil responsibility means conforming to one's community standards, standards expressed in laws legislated by people we elect and enacted for the public good.

As the political season heats up and the rhetoric about the role of government is hotly debated, I think we need to consider our role as citizens as well. And we might as well start small - by using crosswalks when we're on foot, and stopping at them when we're at the wheel of a car.

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