Saturday, November 17, 2012

Why do we stop for red lights?

I just managed, for the umpteenth time, to avoid being hit by a car illegally running a red light. 

There is clearly a widespread breakdown in the shared social understanding that governs the use of public roads. To put it more directly, drivers no longer seem to think rules apply to them.   

The symptoms can be seen at every busy intersection – drivers running red lights, occupation of the yellow box, aggressive blocking of lane changes, illegal use of bus lanes, and lack of signalling.  This behaviour is not limited to private car owners, but is regularly occurring with taxis and buses as well.

This has some pretty profound implications for users of the roads and pedestrians trying to cross them. 

  •  It is no longer safe to proceed through an intersection when the light turns green, as it is more than likely someone will be accelerating through the red light. 
  • When the traffic volume increases, you will likely end up in a jam as drivers refuse to give way in intersections. (Have a look at Scott and Orchard Boulevard.  Good luck crossing on foot)
  • The chance of having an accident is high. 
  • At a time when the government is trying to encourage public transit, it is becoming increasingly unsafe to be a pedestrian.

Which got me thinking about what is going on in Singapore. 

There have been recent debates about whether Singapore is a clean city or a cleaned city.  It is pretty obvious that it is the latter.  The implication being that there is no shared social understanding of the individual’s responsibility to dispose of trash properly, even though there has been 50 years of campaigns to educate people about the need.

There have been on-going discussions about the boorish behaviour of people on trains and buses, refusing to give up seats to the elderly or infirm.

The state of public toilets speaks to the same behaviour.

What is clear from all these examples is that there is no sense of social awareness in Singapore – the idea that as an individual, you are part of something greater, which brings both rights and responsibilities. 

If your compatriots do not share the same set of basic social beliefs/understandings that you do, you have two choices.  You live in a dog eat dog, every man for himself chaos, or you apply heavy and visible policing to compel the correct behaviour.   

I would call this first condition the Swiss system, where transit runs on the honour system (we assume you bought a ticket). 

The second system of heavy policing operates very effectively in Hong Kong, a place which is populated with a wide range of immigrants and with few shared social values.  Policing is visible and effective.  I would call this the compulsion system.

Singapore seems to be structured with the assumption that everybody shares the same values, and with policing effectively invisible. 

This is obviously not working. 

So back to the question.  Why do we stop for red lights?

In a society with shared values and social awareness, we stop for red lights because we understand it is necessary for the safe operation of the roads and our, and others, safety. 

Since people in Singapore are no longer observing traffic laws, this must be a society without shared values or social awareness.  We only stop for red lights if we believe that we will get fined and lose our license if we don’t. We need to be compelled.

That requires heavy policing and the reality that you will got caught.   The current situation is falling apart because policing has become invisible.  

The government's thinking is still fixated on the ideal of the Swiss model, with traffic enforcement being demoted to auxiliary police, sending a clear message that adherence to the rules is not very important.  This needs to change now, before we have a complete breakdown of the social fabric.

1 comment:

joe lam said...

I shared the same experience yesterday (Jan 15th 2013) at the junction of Bras Basah Road and Nicoll Highway. At 12;30pm, a yellow taxi made a left turn from Bras Basah into Nicoll Highway and failed to stop on red signal while I was crossing the road on green pedestrian signal which was in my favorite for nearly 3-5 seconds. The driver was turning left but he was entirely looking at his right. I am a driver too and I understood how he cared about merging into the Nicoll Highway traffic coming from his right. He had no care to his left side when he was turning left. He totally neglected the red signal. I was nearly knocked down by him and he did not even know. He was actually moving very fast and I failed to captured his plate number.

Basically this driver only cared about moving fast and not being hit by another vehicle. Seemingly it does cost him much to knock down someone. He does not understand that pedestrians are part of traffic too. So there is an education and ethic issue here. Unfortunately I did not manage to capture his plate number and I could only hope that his behavior would not end up in a tragedy causing other victims' lives.

Everyday I see drivers not stopping on red signals. I am sure that it is illegal to do so. But why so many drivers ignore it? From what I observe, there are very few traffic patrols and thus might encourage people who do not respect the laws to break them. The fact is that there are plenty of these drivers in this country.

Everyday I see foreign workers transported by pick-up trucks running on highways. It takes common sense to know that there can be big tragedies if they crashed. Passengers of private cars, however, are supposed to put on seat belts. These are double standards, reflecting how policy makers value lives of different classes.

So there are good laws but lack of enforcement. There are rules made on wrong values. How one can feel safe living in this country?