Traffic Lights: The Mechanization of 'Advanced' Society?

We are beings of conscience, of knowing more than feeding and procreating, of asking rhetoric questions one moment and decide not to answer it the next moment. We think, we question, we realise, we form opinions, we pass judgements and we conjure moral standards. We are the only beings in this world not driven by instincts coded within our genes. We see, we smell, we touch, we hear, and before we react, concluding our next course of action, we scour through memory, through experience, and lastly, forming an opinion or decisive action.

It happens the same be it for a genius like Einstein looking deep into space armed with a piece of paper and pencil and forming the mother of all equations, or John Doe walking on the streets measuring the speed of the approaching object, the angle of the target of destination, the sin, cosine and tangent of an opposing pedestrian – in order to not bump into each other.

They weave within each other, forming a symphonic orchestra of seamless, perfect visual chaos, yet not a single one of them bump into each other.

Go search 'India road crossing' on YouTube and you’ll see what I’m trying to say here. Hundreds of them cross those huge intersections in one go. Motorcycles, pedestrians, cars, tut tuts, buses, lorries from all directions. They weave within each other, forming a symphonic orchestra of seamless, perfect visual chaos, yet not a single one of them bump into each other. And to think that this is just one of the many intersections amidst one of the world's most populous nation, day in and out is mind boggling indeed. From a bird’s eye view, it is as if a cluster fuck in perfect synchronization, but to zoom in, you’ll see every bit of speeding up and slowing down, swerving slightly left and right. Everyone’s hand-eye-brain coordination seems to be linked, processing each other’s coordinates, approaching speeds and anticipation of changes in direction – all this at once.

To most who came from first world countries, this is a sign of chaotic governance, a symbol of utter underdevelopment. But the truth is, behind all this ‘mess’ is the root of what makes us humans at the first place, to be able to adapt, to change, to think, to measure, to consider consequences, and onto a higher ground of moral standards, to blame oneself than the other, and to rely on oneself than the governance or compliance of others upon a set of rule that serves to undertake our own efforts and responsibilities to think and react otherwise, accordingly.

To most who came from first world countries, this is a sign of chaotic governance, a symbol of utter underdevelopment.

It is easy to observe this taking place. Take an intersection within urban housing areas such as Bandar Utama or Taman Desa that use to have no traffic lights. What do everyone do while approaching the intersections? Everyone slowed down, look left and right, following the rules first taught in our undang-undang to allow those from the right to proceed. There’re no honks, no trouble, no speeding either for everyone fears the other to inflict pain and damage and thus react accordingly.

Now, twist this whole scenario with what was happening recently, almost every intersection of at least two lanes from each direction are now fitted with traffic lights and pedestrian crossings – a sign of ‘advanced civilizations’. Cars began speeding up as the traffic lights turned amber, and not slowing down when the lights remain green – because the law implies that YOU have the right of way at that very moment, and nothing should, or can stand in the way when it is your protected rights to cross the intersection at that very moment. Regardless if it may be a child wandering across, or an old lady not making it on time to cross the road when the pedestrian crossing lights go red. Worst of all, when the traffic lights are experiencing faults, everyone began urging their way, regardless of what the rules imply, by having the notion of assuming there’re no right of way because the lights are out.

Welcome to the modern mechanization of human beings into what we call society. A society that wanders into an intersection without checking out from left to right for potential haphazards because a couple of dollar’s worth of light bulbs says so. A society that is so advanced that instead of relying on our brains, our eyes to perform an easy task, we rely on an intertwine grid of electric networks tapped to some coal power station hundreds of kilometers away for a road cross. A society that wanders mindlessly into an intersection without first checking on the speeding Ferrari from the left – because the green light went on. A society that follows GPS directions into the river, cliffs, you name it. Have we moved forward or have we not? In the course of pursuing for the seemingly advanced goal of mechanizing ourselves, we seem to have forego the essence of what makes us superior at the first place – think.

 A society that wanders into an intersection without checking out from left to right for potential haphazards because a couple of dollar’s worth of light bulbs says so.

All is not lost however, as more and more European countries realise that by removing traffic signals and signs, had a perverse effect to what road engineers had partake over the past many decades – without road signs or any symbolic measures of trying to influence driver behaviour. The ambiguity left with an unmarked, un-ruled intersection dramatically raises the conscience of drivers, cyclists and pedestrians. Drivers slowed down to look out for cyclists, cyclists do so for pedestrians, everyone look out for each other, anticipating each other’s movements. No honks, no emergency braking screeches, no drama. 

In fact, many smaller towns in Germany, Netherlands, Sweden has made streets safer by experimenting the removal traffic lights from lower traffic areas away from CBDs, and the results are very positive. For an intersection that scores between two or three lives each year, it now stands at zero for the past two years. Time to rethink don’t we?