Walk Carefully

Crossing the street can be a dangerous activity. A few weeks ago, I was waiting to cross a busy downtown street, and a couple of fellow pedestrians were standing next to me looking at their phones. When the light changed, they began to walk. This was one of those intersections, however, where the light changes a good 20 seconds in advance of the safe walking signal, to allow cars to make left turns via an advanced green arrow. My fellow pedestrians were about 1/5th into the intersection before they realized their error. It wasn’t a close call this time, but it easily could have been. I’ve seen cars narrowly miss pedestrians in similar circumstances – in fact, in this very intersection. This reminded me of the importance of proceeding with caution, which of course, reminded me of mindfulness and one of the newer skills in DBT (Linehan, 2015). In particular, there is a skill called the STOP skill. STOP stands for Stop, Take a step back, Observe, and Proceed mindfully. The skill is especially helpful in situations in which you normally act on impulse. It’s important to first identify the high risk situation. This requires some awareness that a given situation is potentially risky. For people who have trouble with gambling, such risky situations could include being around friends who like to drink and gamble, driving by a casino, staying in a hotel in a different town where a casino is nearby, drinking, smoking, and so forth. For people who have trouble with alcohol or drugs, risky situations might similarly involve people, places, or things associated with alcohol or drug use. Coming back to crossing the street, we all do this so often that it probably ceases to be a risky situation in our minds. It might be important to know, then, that there were approximately 47 pedestrian deaths per month in British Columbia in 2016 alone (http://www2.gov.bc.ca/assets/gov/public-safety-and-emergency-services/death-investigation/statistical/mvi-pedestrian.pdf). The number of pedestrian accidents involving injury is most assuredly considerably higher. Further, I would suspect the majority of pedestrian accidents occur at intersections when the pedestrian is crossing the street. If you look at the rate of pedestrian deaths per 100,000 population (found at the same website cited above), however, the actual chances of being hit by a vehicle and dying might seem vanishingly small. This, then, is one of those situations involving low risk (low probability of a problem) but high impact (if there is a problem, it’s a major problem). Nevertheless, it’s probably still prudent to take steps (no pun intended) to avoid a low risk/high impact situation. Further, if the statistics were to zero in on those people crossing the road with their eyes glued to their smartphones, jaywalking, crossing before the walking signal has begun, crossing on a dark, rainy evening in black clothing, and so forth, the “risk” level might start to seem a little more worrisome. For my fellow pedestrians, the STOP skill would involve (a) stopping all activities other than vigilantly attending to traffic and traffic signals, (b) taking a step back mentally, and ideally physically, to get some perspective on where they are and what they’re doing, (c) observing the situation, the cars, the signals, whether anyone appears to be trying to run the red light, and so forth, and (d) proceeding mindfully (slowly walking out into the intersection when it’s safe, and carefully crossing the road). These steps are sometimes hard to put into action. I recently sprained my back. I couldn’t sleep for a few days, as laying down led to great pain. I also had a lot of difficulty getting in and out of chairs, but more to the point of this blog, I was walking really slowly. When I came to an intersection and couldn’t walk nearly as quickly as usual, the orange countdown became a trigger for mild panic. That countdown actually goes pretty quickly. Sometimes, you only have 10 seconds to get across a pretty wide intersection. I started to have a lot of empathy for people with physical difficulties and those of advanced age who can’t walk like they used to or need supports (canes, walkers, and so forth). My letter to the city is in the works (in my mind at least), but for now, I’m hoping this blog has made the point that the STOP skill is a very practical strategy for everyday life situations. Walk carefully! ~ Alexander L. Chapman, Ph.D., R.Psych.