Pilots and aviation buffs will likely know the term I have used in the title. In full, it is “bad situational awareness” and it means a pilot has an incomplete or inaccurate appreciation of their place in the sky, both in absolute terms – position, altitude and attitude – and in relative terms – proximity to hazards such as other aircraft, terrain and different classifications of airspace. Bad SA is a safety issue. It can cause things to go wrong or can cause the pilot to react inappropriately to unexpected events.
But I’m not talking about flying. I’m talking about being out in public. For the most part a far more benign environment, but potentially as deadly. Every day I see people crossing roads in ways that entirely fail to take into account their own mortality. Really there is only one rule for crossing a road. Don’t get hit. Sure there are rules, lights, road markings. But these are merely an aid to not getting hit. I’ve made a personal study of ‘how not to get hit’. For many years now I have had the basic model sorted, but I continue to refine it by observing others’ ‘how not to not get hit’ behaviours. For instance, don’t sneak to the traffic island in the centre of the road and then forget about the traffic that is now behind you.
But an experience at lunch time today gave me a very interesting insight into the way people – ordinary people – get their SA. Or don’t.
I was lined up in my favourite Subway shop. The cash register is near the door and the line stretches along the counter and then doubles back along the other side of the long, thin shop toward the door again. I was about half way along this tail when I noticed something of a minor commotion behind me. It was a man and a dog. It took me a few moments to realise what was happening. The dog, a large German Sherpherd, had a handle. The man was hanging on to the handle and a leash. Clearly the man was poor of sight. As is my habit, I had left a gap in front of me while I was adjacent to the staircase that leads to the sit-down eating area. The dog clearly saw this gap and decided it was the end of the line and pushed in in front of me. I didn’t mind at all. Now let’s turn our attention to the woman who had been in front of me.
Prior to the entrance of the man and his dog, she had been queued up standing quite close behind another customer. As I arrived in the line she was scanning the menu boards high on the wall behind the counter – facing away from the stairway. I left my customary gap so that other customers could freely get to and from the staircase. Having just cleared the Coke fridge, for some reason she stepped back into the stair landing area effectively blocking the gap I had left, just as two people descended the stairs and had to push past her. I believe she was aware of them on some level, but she did not break her gaze on the menus nor move either foot more than a couple of inches. I moved further back to facilitate their exit.
When the man and the dog entered, she spun around and seemed to take a great interest in the scene. She began to move in ways that made it clear to me she was intent on making life easier for the man and his dog. After she had given her order, she even approached the man, gently hooked his arm and guided him to the counter whilst explaining he could now give his order. Further along the counter the dog started taking an interest in the cookie shelf. I’m not sure what the fuss was about, as it is completely sealed from the customer’s side, but again, she was observant and helpful.
And so to my point. This woman proved she was compassionate and able to assess and deal with the situation very well. She saw someone who was at a disadvantage and went out of her way to help that person. However, if you’re just Joe or Jane Public, then she really doesn’t give a fuck about you. She saw the dog in the shop. She missed the elephant in the room.
Going back to mortality for a moment, I would like to suggest that it’s the elephant that will kill you when you cross the road. Personally, I’m always looking for elephants, though I rarely meet them face to face.