An Open Book: The Law Of Common Sense

Los Alamos

I don’t know if this is a common occurrence, but the relatively leisurely birth of our first son, led Terry and I to take an accordingly leisurely reaction when labor pains started for our second one. Although we lived a 40-minute drive from the hospital, the contractions were mild and irregular, so we went about our business with the confidence of experienced parents. However, Jacob suddenly decided that he had had enough in a cramped space, and off we were, flying down U.S. Route 3 in the middle of the night toward Boston Beth Israel Hospital. My wife’s breathing exercise training kicked in, and I joined her, intermittently reassuring her that we had plenty of time, while I played a soothing classical CD. Well, not all classical music is soothing, suddenly the Allegro movement of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons kicked in, and I had to stop breathing in rhythm to the music as I was starting to see those little stars in front of me.

I was driving fast but not irresponsibly; I don’t have any doubt that if we had been stopped, rather than scolding me, the officer would have transported us in the cruiser with lights and sirens on, all the way to the hospital. I am also sure that the next speeding car would not have received the same courtesy. Because, even though there are extenuating circumstances, laws are meant to set the social standards by which we live, and judges and juries (and sometimes police and code enforcement officers) are tasked with bringing some common sense in the application of these laws.

The proposed snow removal ordinance has led to several letters to me and other councilors about extenuating circumstances of all sorts that would make unfair the enforcement of the proposed responsibility to clear one’s sidewalk after a storm. Someone might be elderly and have not received help (yet) from a neighbor, the owner may have unexpectedly been sent away on travel without the opportunity to make proper arrangements, the snow blower jams and the back is weak, etc.  Those are all valid reasons why code enforcement, or heaven forbid, a judge, should be given some latitude to handle such circumstances.

However, these anecdotes, all of which have probably happened sometime, somewhere, don’t imply that the basic responsibility of an owner to clear his/her sidewalk is fundamentally unfair, just like my harrowing driving experience should not imply that speed limits are generally unjust. From a practical manner, given the proclivity of snow to melt, the only people who will be cited and fined will be flagrant, repeat offenders on prominent rights-of-way, not Grandma.

Social laws, unlike physical laws, are not inviolate. They are general guidelines, like that double yellow line that keep us from usually running into each other.  When that deer decides to stop in the middle of the road and stare at you, you are probably going to step over the line, as would anyone else, and no one is going to ticket you even if you hit someone.

Similarly, as there is no way for the county to clear all sidewalks, and without an expectation for property owners to take care of their own sidewalks, we are left with a limited number of options. The county could clear some sidewalks leaving people homebound or in danger of getting run over, we could rely on the kindness of some to clear the sidewalks for everyone else (dream on), or we could make it a social (and legal) expectation that we clear our own sidewalk if we have one. I expect that commercial property owners with high levels of pedestrian traffic will be held to a higher standard than residential owners in a cul-de-sac. Some property owners (such as me) who don’t have a sidewalk will be left to listen to their conscience and offer to help their neighbors when they are done with their own work.

Any legislator will tell you that no law is perfect, or perfectly just. No social norm is either. They serve their general purpose and have to be viewed in context when exceptions occur. Common sense should apply, which we certainly learned that fateful evening, when Jacob made his grand appearance 15 minutes after we crossed the hospital doors.