Why Even Bother to Stop for a Red?

This seems to be a valid question in Whitehorse. An alarming number of drivers around here simply disregard common traffic laws, patterns, and etiquette altogether.

But, almost oddly, most people do respect the traffic-flow controlling systems that local municipal employees have taken the time to plan, design, build, and maintain. The question is: why?

The most obvious reason is the law: running a red light will earn you a hefty fine. But as anyone in Whitehorse know, that’s an unlikely outcome. So the law is really the least of our worries.

I ponder this question because ubiquitous computing (ubicomp, for short) is one of my favourite subjects. (“Ubiquitous” basically refers to something that’s everywhere and always present.)

The very idea that technology may one day be all around us and controlling our movements really freaks some people out. But the fact is, to a certain degree, we already live in this state.

Just look at traffic lights.

They are a technology-based system that controls the movement of virtually the entire human race every day. You can’t get much more ubiquitous than that.

The first one appeared in 1868 just outside the British Parliament and contained a gas lantern. Within a month it blew up, nearly killing the police officer operating it.

The modern traffic light was invented in the US around 1920. It is now used at intersections globally.

Traffic lights are programmed to manage the passage of vehicles in a safely systematic fashion. In a sense, they bring order to the mayhem that might normally ensue were we left to our own devices at intersections.

Or do they?

An alternative theory of traffic control, called Shared Space, argues that we don’t need traffic lights at all. “We only want traffic lights where they are useful and I haven’t found anywhere where they are useful yet,” Hans Monderman, a Dutch traffic planner and pioneer of the Shared Space concept, said in 1996.

Monderman oversaw the conversion of a Dutch town of 50,000 people from 15 sets of traffic lights to none.

Instead, pedestrians, bicyclists, and motorists must collaboratively navigate open roads with a minimum of technical or other control.

“[Shared Space] shifts the emphasis away from the Government taking the risk, to the driver being responsible for his or her own risk,” Monderman told the Telegraph newspaper.

The Shared Space concept is based on the theory of risk compensation, which claims that we adjust our behaviour in relation to perceived risks.

So, if we wear bike helmets, we bike harder and faster than if we did not.

When wearing seatbelts, people feel compelled to drive faster and more aggressively.

And studies show that ABS brakes have not contributed to a drop in accidents. Instead, people have responded to the sense of safety that ABS brakes give them and accept a greater degree of risk in their driving habits.

It’s the same for ski helmets, speed limits, and especially child safety equipment. Stick some knee and elbow pads on a 6-year-old boy and he thinks he’s Evel Knievel.

So the Shared Space concept recommends that we remove or minimize the safety and regulatory constraints imposed by other traffic systems, thus forcing motorists, cyclists, and pedestrians to constantly collaborate and self-regulate.

Nice idea, but can it work? The people in Drachten, Netherlands, seem to think so. One motorist told the Telegraph that, “you drive more slowly and carefully, but somehow you seem to get around town quicker.”

In view of risk compensation, then, traffic lights are mechanisms that provide motorists, cyclists, and pedestrians with a false sense of security.

They are perceived to inherently reduce the level of risk at intersections, requiring everyone engaging with them to pay less attention to their relationship to the flow of traffic.

Like, we can just trust the light, right? (And why not take the opportunity to fire off a quick text message while I sit here waiting for a green?)

The omnipresence of traffic lights suggests a strong reliance on a technology system to perform an act that we are seemingly capable of performing independently. It also seems to suggest that we are less inclined to take responsibility for our own safety at an intersection: the light is taking care of that for us.

And that’s why we stop: because we trust the technology. Or, to take that one step further, because we don’t trust ourselves and others around us.

Traffic lights represent a reliance on technology to administer our safety. We trust that its programmed, systematized nature will protect us from ourselves and one another.

If that’s why we stop for red lights, you really have to wonder: what other forms of technology are present in our lives that we follow with blind obedience? And how inclined are we to generally follow new forms that enter our lives in a ubiquitous fashion?

Originally published in the Yukon News on Friday, July 17, 2009.

3 thoughts on “Why Even Bother to Stop for a Red?

  1. Last time I was in Whitehorse there were no traffic lights working. Maybe they want to lead Canada in this new concept.

  2. In Taipa and Coloane, large parts of Macao and where the new casinos are, there are no traffic lights. We have roundabouts. Also in SE Asia I find the traffic flows like water rather than the rigid driving in the west. It is, however; interesting crossing the road and trying not to get wet.

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