Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us) - Tom Vanderbilt (2008)
Chapter 8. How Traffic Explains the World: On Driving with a Local Accent
“Good Brakes, Good Horn, Good Luck”:
Plunging into the Maelstrom of Delhi Traffic
Opening his eyes, he would know the place by the rhythm of movements in the street long before he caught any characteristic detail.
—Robert Musil, The Man Without Qualities
“What other city in the world is like Delhi?” demanded Qamar Ahmed, the city’s joint commissioner of traffic, as we sat drinking chai in his office. Clad in a khaki uniform topped with bright epaulettes on each shoulder, Ahmed brusquely shifted his attention between me and any one of the three mobile phones on his desk that kept ringing. An air conditioner labored against the enveloping premonsoon heat. “Delhi has forty-eight modes of transport, each struggling to occupy the same space on the carriageway. What other city is like this?”
To exit the Indira Gandhi International Airport, typically at night, when the international flights arrive, and alight into one of the city’s ubiquitous black-and-yellow Ambassador cabs is to enter a motorized maelstrom. As an anticongestion measure, trucks are allowed into Delhi only between ten p.m. and six a.m., and so the sparsely lit road is thronged with lorries. They lurch, belch smoke, and ceaselessly toot their pressure horns. This seems by invitation: The back of most trucks bears the brightly festooned legend “Horn Please,” often accompanied by a request to “Use Dipper at Night” (this means “dim your lights”). “Horn Please” originally invited following drivers to honk if they wanted to pass the slower-moving, lane-hogging trucks on the narrower roads of the past, and I was told that it endures merely as a decorative tradition. Nevertheless, a cacophony of claxons filled the air.
By day, the mayhem is revealed as true chaos. Delhi’s streets play host to a bewildering stream of zigzagging green-and-yellow auto-rickshaws, speeding cabs, weaving bicyclists, slow-moving oxen-drawn carts, multi-passengered motorcycles conveying helmetless children and sari-clad women who struggle to keep their clothing from getting tangled in the chain, and heaving buses, which are often forced out of the bus-only lane because it is filled with cyclists and pedestrians, who are themselves in the lane because there tends to be no sidewalk, or “footpath,” as they say in Delhi. If there is a footpath, it is often occupied by people sleeping, eating, selling, buying, or simply sitting watching the traffic go by. Limbless beggars and young hawkers converge at each intersection, scratching at the windows as drivers study the countdown signals that tell them when the traffic lights will change. Endearingly, if hopelessly, the signals have been embellished with a single word: RELAX. In the roundabouts of New Delhi, the traffic whizzes and weaves defiantly past faded safety signs bearing blunt messages like OBEY TRAFFIC RULES, AVOID BLOOD POOL and DON’T DREAM OTHERWISE YOU’LL SCREAM. These signs are as morbidly whimsical as they are common, leading one to suspect that somewhere, lurking in Delhi’s Public Works Department, is a desk-bound bureaucrat with the soul of a poet.
The most striking feature of Delhi traffic is the occasional presence of a cow or two, often lying idly in the median strip, feet away from traffic. The medians, it is said, provide a resting place that is not only dry but kept free from pesky flies by the buffeting winds of passing cars. I posed the question of cows to Maxwell Pereira, Delhi’s former top traffic cop, who has of late been playing the Colonel Pinto character on Indian Sesame Street. “Let me correct a little misperception,” he told me as we sat in his office in the Gurgaon district. “The presence of a cow in a congested urban area is no hazard. Much as I don’t like the presence of a cow on the road when I am advocating smoother traffic and convenience, the presence of a cow also forces a person to slow down. The overall impact is to reduce the tendency to overspeed and to rashly and negligently drive.” Cows, in effect, act as the “mental speed bumps” that Australian traffic activist David Engwicht described in Chapter 7. They provide “intrigue and uncertainty,” as Engwicht put it, and the average Delhi driver would certainly rather be late for work than hit a cow.
I heard that particularly Indian phrase—“rash and negligent driving”—often while in Delhi, but after a few days I started to lose sight of how that could differ from the norm. Delhi drivers have a chronic tendency to stray between lanes, most alarmingly those flowing in the opposite direction. The only signal used with regularity is the horn. Instead of working brake lights (or indeed any lights), many trucks have the phrase KEEP DISTANCE painted on the back, a subtle reminder to the driver behind: I may stop at any moment. Some taxis, on the other hand, bear the inscription KEEP DISTANCE. POWER BRAKE. This means: I may come to a stop faster than you expect.
Many vehicles lack side rearview mirrors, or keep them folded in. Auto-rickshaw wallahs actually mount their side-view mirrors on the inside, presumably to keep them from getting clipped off—or from clipping others. When changing lanes, drivers seem to rely not on the mirrors but rather that the person behind them will honk if there is danger. (It is not uncommon, meanwhile, to see scores of bus passengers leaning out the windows and advising the driver about whether he can merge, or trying to guide traffic themselves.) As a result of this collective early warning system, the sound of horns, on a road like Janpath in New Delhi, is as constant as birdcalls. When I asked one taxi driver, who went by the moniker J.P., how he coped with Delhi traffic, his answer was quick: “Good brakes, good horn, good luck.”
After spending some time in the city, one vacillates between thinking Delhi drivers (and pedestrians) are either the best or worst in the world—the best because they’re so adept at maneuvering in tight spaces and tricky situations, or the worst because they put themselves there to begin with. “That is why we have a negative connotation to the phrase ‘defensive driving’ in India,” said Pereira, who still speaks in the flowery but formal vernacular of Indian officialdom. “Defensive driving is defending yourself from all the vagaries, including the negligence contribution on the part of the other road user.” Pereira advised me not to try Delhi traffic firsthand: “The Indian driver relies more on his reflexes, absolutely. Your reflexes would not be geared to expect the unexpected.”
Conversely, when Pereira finds himself in the United States visiting relatives, his passengers, who may fail to appreciate the lingering aftereffects of Delhi traffic, are often perturbed by his driving style. “When I see a vehicle approaching from a side road, I tense up. Internally, I’m used to a condition in India where I’m not sure if when they are coming from the side road they will step into my path,” he said, adding that in the States, “you expect that he will never; here I will not expect that he will never. The halt-and-proceed thing is not there.”
Arguably, drivers anywhere should always try to expect the unexpected, but this is taken to a kind of high art in Delhi, where the unexpected perversely becomes the expected. There are nearly 110 million traffic violations per dayin Delhi, I was told by Rohit Baluja as we sat in his office in the Okhla Industrial Area, eating lunch out of the small metal pails known as tiffins.
The dapper and successful owner of a shoe company, Baluja founded the Institute of Road Traffic Education in an effort to improve the conditions of Indian roads, on which an estimated 100,000 people die every year—one out of every ten road deaths in the world. He launched IRTE after a succession of business trips to Germany, where he was astounded by the well-defined and relatively orderly traffic system. “As soon as I returned to Delhi it felt as if everybody here is stealing your right-of-way, and that nobody understands there is something called a right-of-way,” he said. In 2002, a group of English police studying Delhi traffic told Baluja that whereas in the United Kingdom one can predict with 90 percent certainty the behavior of the average road user, in Delhi they felt that no more than 10 percent compliance could be anticipated. They called it anarchy on the roads. “We have started living in indiscipline, so we don’t feel there is an indiscipline,” Baluja told me.
The estimate of daily traffic violations was obtained by IRTE researchers who followed and filmed random vehicles on the streets of Delhi in a camera-and-radar-equipped SUV they called the Interceptor. I was shown a sample of this footage by Amandeep Singh Bedi, a researcher at IRTE, and all the “vagaries” that Pereira had been discussing came to light. In one clip, a driver is rear-ended when he stops his car suddenly in the middle of a busy road. Why did he stop? So he could buckle his seat belt and not be challaned, or fined, by a traffic cop posted on the side of the road. In another, a bus illegally halts far from the marked curbside bus stop, making harried passengers weave through several traffic streams simply to board the bus. It soon becomes clear that one reason the number of violations is so high is that many drivers are forced to violate the rules in reaction to another driver violating the rules: The bus lane is filled with pedestrians or bicycles (who, in fairness, have nowhere else to go), so the bus cannot travel in the bus lane; thus begins a cascade of violations across the traffic stream.
Not everything can be strictly blamed on the driver. Lane markings are often missing, shattered wrecks sit in the middle of busy roads, foliage obscures traffic lights, and sometimes traffic signs in Delhi are no more than small, barely legible hand-lettered placards taped to utility poles; a “No U-Turn” sign may look more like a suburban garage-sale announcement. These are created by an artist with the Delhi Traffic Police. “Sometimes there is a gap in my request [for a new sign] and their installation,” Ahmed admitted to me with a sigh. “To fill up this gap we make these signs.”
Things are even worse in the countryside. “Our highways are built by consultants from across the world,” Baluja said. “They have got no idea of mixed traffic conditions. Highways have been built cutting across villages. Villagers cross still, but underpasses were not made for them.” And so what is meant to be a restricted-access highway becomes, unintentionally, a small village road, with animals crossing, vendors selling fruit and newspapers on the median strip, and bus passengers queuing up for buses that have stopped directly on the carriageway. Openings are cut into guardrails, or the guardrails themselves are stolen for scrap. In vain, localities do things like erect stop signs on high-speed national highways—taking “expect the unexpected” to a new level.
On one of my last days in Delhi, I witnessed an episode that seemed to contain the exasperating essence of the Delhi traffic experience. One afternoon, as the temperature swelled to over one hundred degrees, the air pregnant with the weight of the rainy season, I saw a funeral procession on the famously bustling Chandni Chowk in Old Delhi. A group of men were bearing aloft a body draped in white fabric and marigold garlands, jostling through the traffic of cycle-rickshaws, pedestrians, scooters, and carts heaped high with produce. A thought occurred to me then: The living may indeed fear for their lives on Delhi roads, but even the dead have to fight for space.
Why New Yorkers Jaywalk (and Why They Don’t in Copenhagen): Traffic as Culture
One of the first things that strikes a visitor to a new country is the traffic. This happens in part simply because foreign traffic, like a foreign currency or language, represents a different standard. The cars look odd (who makes that?), the road widths may feel unusual, the traffic may drive on the other side of the road, the speed limits may be higher or lower than one is used to, and one may struggle, as one does with shower-heads at the hotel, with traffic signs that look somewhat familiar but still escape interpretation: A particular symbol might refer to rocks falling or sheep crossing the road—or both, at the same time. I was once in the back of a London taxi when I saw a red-and-white traffic sign that declared, CHANGED PRIORITIES AHEAD. Whose priorities, I thought with a panic—mine? All of ours?
Most of the standard stuff is fairly simple, requiring only slight adjustments to adapt. The more difficult thing to crack is the traffic culture. This is how people drive, how people cross the street, how power relations are made manifest in those interactions, what sorts of patterns emerge from the traffic. Traffic is a sort of secret window onto the inner heart of a place, a form of cultural expression as vital as language, dress, or music. It’s the reason a horn in Rome does not mean the same thing as a horn in Stockholm, why flashing your headlights at another driver is understood one way on the German autobahn and quite another way on the 405 in Los Angeles, why people jaywalk constantly in New York and hardly at all in Copenhagen. These are the impressions that stick with us. “Greek drivers are crazy,” the visitor to Athens will observe, safely back in Kabul.
But what explains this traffic culture? Where does it come from? Why did I find the traffic in Delhi so strange? Why does Belgium, a country for all intents and purposes quite similar to the neighboring Netherlands, have comparatively riskier roads? Is it the quality of the roads, the kinds of cars driven, the education of the drivers, the laws on the books, the mind-set of the people? The answer is complicated. It may be a bit of all of these things. There does, however, seem to be one overarching, “rule of thumb” way to measure the traffic culture of a country, its degrees of order or chaos, safety or danger; we will return to this in the next section.
The first thing to recognize is that traffic culture is relative. One reason Delhi traffic feels intense to outsiders is simple population density: The metropolitan area of Delhi packs five times the people into the same space as New York City, a place that already feels pretty crowded. More people, more traffic, more interactions. Another reason Delhi seems so chaotic (to me, at least) is the staggering array of vehicles, all moving at different speeds and in different ways. The forty-eight modes of transport I referred to earlier are a far cry from those of my hometown, New York City, which has roughly five: cars, trucks, bicycles, pedestrians, and motorcycles or scooters (with a few horse-drawn carriages and cycle-rickshaws thrown in for tourists). Many places in the United States are essentially down to two modes: cars and trucks.
Geetam Tiwari, a professor at the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi, has posited that what may look like anarchy in the eyes of conventional traffic engineering (and Western drivers) actually has a logic all its own. Far from breaking down into gridlock, she suggests, the “self-optimized” system of Delhi can actually move more people at the busiest times than the standard models would imply. When traffic is moving briskly on two- and three-lane roads, bicycles tend to form an impromptu bike lane in the curb lane; the more bikes, the wider the lane. But when traffic begins to get congested, when the flows approach 2,000 cars per lane per hour and 6,000 bikes per lane per hour, the system undergoes a change. The bicyclists (and motorcyclists) start to “integrate,” filling in the “longitudinal gaps” between cars and buses. Cars slow dramatically, bikes less so. The slowly moving queues grow not only lengthwise but laterally, squeezing out extra capacity from the roads.
In so-called homogenous traffic flows, where every vehicle is roughly the same size and same type, lane discipline makes sense: You cannot fit two cars into one lane. It is also easy to figure out the maximum capacity of a road and to try to predict driver behavior through relatively simple traffic models like the previously discussed “car following.” But in heterogeneous traffic flows, like Delhi’s, where nonmotorized traffic can make up as much as two-thirds of the traffic stream, those formal models are of little use—having bicycles or scooters queue one per lane at a traffic light, for example, would create massive traffic jams.
It can be unnerving to sit at a Delhi intersection in the back of an auto-rickshaw and feel humanity press to within inches, or to see bicycles slowly thread between teeming lorries. When the traffic compresses in this way, the number of what engineers call conflicts increases—there are, to put it simply, more chances for someone to try to occupy the same space at the same time as someone else. In conventional traffic-engineering thought, the more conflict, the less safe the system. But again, Delhi challenges preconceptions. In a study of various locations around Delhi, Tiwari and a group of researchers found that the sites that had a low conflict rate tended to have a high fatality rate, and vice versa. In other words, the seeming chaos functioned as a kind of safety device. More conflicts meant lower speeds, which meant fewer chances for fatal crashes. The higher the speeds, the better the car and truck traffic flowed, the worse it was for the bicycles and pedestrians. Even when the roads were crowded, however, they were hardly ideal for cyclists. Studies show that 62 percent of the cycle fatalities during peak hours were because of collisions with trucks and buses, which tend to use the same lane as the cyclists. Self-organization clearly has its limits.
The second point is that traffic culture can be more important than laws or infrastructure in determining the feel of a place. In China, which is undergoing the fastest motorization in history, the power of traffic culture was made clear to me one afternoon as I sat studying an intersection in the Jingan neighborhood of Shanghai, from the God’s-eye perspective of my thirteenth-floor hotel room. At first glance, the intersection, ringed by office buildings and well marked with signs and signals, was unremarkable. But then I took a closer look.
Traffic engineers note that signalized four-way intersections have over fifty total points of conflict, or places where the turning movements and crisscrossing flows might interfere. At the intersection of Shimen Yilu and Weihai Lu, that number seemed hopelessly low. As groups of cars hurtled toward other groups of cars, I fully expected to see a collision. Instead, time seemed to slow, space compressed like an accordion, and in that small cluster the various parties worked a way through. Then the accordion expanded again, the space opened up, and the speed increased as all the parties went on their way. It seemed to be orchestrated by some giant invisible hand.
But the sheer range of ways for things to go wrong was staggering. Cars moving down Weihai Lu will use the oncoming left-turn lane to pass cars moving in the same direction. Bikes coming down Shimen Yilu and wanting to turn left onto Weihai Lu will park themselves in the middle of the big intersection, waiting to find an opening in three lanes of oncoming traffic. A pedestrian escapes one right-turning car only to be almost hit by a left-turning bicycle, who in turn narrowly avoids being struck by a vehicle that has crossed the yellow line to get around another car. There is no left-turn arrow, so when Shimen Yilu northbound gets the green, all four lanes of cars begin to move. But the cars turning left must navigate the two-way stream of bike and moped traffic before plunging farther into the wide, crowded zebra-striped pedestrian crosswalk. Cars pay little heed to the pedestrians crossing; even if there are huge massings, the cars will still push through, sometimes stranding pedestrians between two streams of probing cars. The two-way bike traffic does not look to necessarily follow any rule of thumb regarding being on the right or left, and on Weihai Lu, it’s not uncommon to see bikes almost have head-on collisions.
In theory, this intersection could have been anywhere, from Houston to Hamburg. But what went on within that intersection was something else entirely. Crossings continued after the lights had changed, pedestrians seemed to cross as if they had given up on life, and drivers seemed to be doing their best to oblige that wish.
In a study a few years ago, a group of researchers examined a number of intersections in Tokyo and a number of comparable intersections in Beijing. Physically, the intersections were essentially the same. But those in Tokyo handled up to twice as many vehicles in an hour. What was the difference? The researchers had several ideas. One was that Tokyo had more new and higher-quality vehicles, which could start and stop more quickly. Another was that by contrast with Tokyo, Beijing had many more bicycles. In 2000, bicycles still accounted for 38 percent of all daily trips in the city, with cars at 23 percent, according to the Beijing Transportation Research Center (the gap has since been closing). Bicycles, the researchers noted, were often not separate from the main traffic flow, and so weaving bikes caused “lateral disturbance.”
The most important difference had nothing to do with the quality or composition of Beijing’s traffic flow; it concerned the behavior of its participants. In Tokyo, signal compliance by cars and pedestrians was, like Japanese culture itself, rigorously formal and polite. In Beijing, the researchers observed, drivers (and cyclists and pedestrians) were much more likely to violate traffic signals. People not only entered the intersection after the light had changed, the researchers found, but before. This impression was confirmed to me by Scott Kronick, a longtime Beijing resident who heads Ogilvy Public Relations’ Chinese division. “Driving in China is total offense—you go for it. You’ll see people on the green light trying to take left-hand turns before the traffic goes through.”
One of the more outlandish transportation proposals made by the Red Guards during China’s Cultural Revolution—along with banning private vehicles and demanding that rickshaw passengers pedal the rickshaws—was to change the meaning of traffic lights: Red would mean “go,” green would mean “stop.” To look at Chinese cities today, you might not realize that the proposal never took hold.
At first, the traffic disorder seems a bit surprising, given the strictness of the Chinese government in other areas of life (e.g., blocking Web sites). Then again, jostling traffic is not going to bring down a regime. The British playwright Kenneth Tynan observed in his Diaries, after seeing the wreckage of a car crash in Turkey, “Bad driving—i.e. fast and reckless driving—tends to exist in inverse ratio to democratic institutions. In an authoritarian state, the only place where the little man achieves equality with the big is in heavy traffic. Only there can he actually overtake.” As amateur sociology, this is pretty good stuff. And people in China—drivers, pedestrians, cyclists—did at times seem to be going out of their way to assert their presence, to claim some ownership of the road.
This became clear one afternoon as I went cycling with Jonathan Landreth, the Beijing correspondent for Hollywood Reporter and a regular cyclist. Even within the bike lane, things were more complex than they seemed. Simply by having a mountain bike with gears, I was able to ride much faster than the typical Chinese commuter on their heavy Flying Pigeon, who years ago would have commanded the entire street. But I was still not top of the food chain in the bike lane—faster still are the electric-powered bicycles, one of which almost hit me head-on. Then there are the motorized three-wheeled vehicles commissioned to transport Beijing’s handicapped—and, it seemed, to add to their ranks. “Those guys use the bike lane too,” Landreth told me, “and they get really annoyed when you’re in the way.”
I was given another theory on Chinese traffic behavior by Liu Shinan, a columnist at the China Daily, a government-owned newspaper. I happened to be in China at a time when several vigorous campaigns were under way, in part to improve traffic before the 2008 Beijing Olympics. In Shanghai, officials were threatening to post photographs of jaywalkers in their place of business. Liu thought the tactic might work. “We Chinese attach importance to face,” he told me as we sat in the newspaper’s canteen. “When they jaywalk they don’t care too much about it, because all the people around them are strangers. They don’t think they have lost face. But if you published a photo in my unit here, I would feel very embarrassed.” What was happening in Shanghai was, in essence, a version of the eBay-style reputation-management system discussed earlier in this book. But why were such measures deemed necessary? The roots of Beijing’s traffic lawlessness, Liu suggested to me, lie in history. “After the Cultural Revolution, which lasted for ten years, it was a chaotic society,” he said. “People didn’t show any respect to any law, because Chairman Mao encouraged the people to revolt, to question authority.”
So were these countless infractions little acts of everyday rebellion? Were drivers still paying heed to Mao’s praise of “lawlessness” as a social good? Or can the roots of China’s disorganized traffic be traced even further back? It has long been argued, for example, that Confucian ethics, which emphasize personal relationships and the cultivation of private virtues, contribute to a diminished sense of public morality and civic culture. In his 1935 best-seller My Country and My People, Lin Yutang wrote that the lack of “personal rights” had led to an individualistic, deep-seated indifference toward the public good. “We are great enough to elaborate a perfect system of official impeachment and civil service and traffic regulations and library reading-room rules,” Lin Yutang observed, “but we are also great enough to break all systems, to ignore them, circumvent them, play with them, and become superior to them.” In opposition to the Socratic tradition of the West, Confucianism emphasizes personal ethics and virtues over the “rule of law.” As the legal scholar Albert H. Y. Chen writes, “in situations where there were disputes, people were encouraged to compromise and give concessions rather than to assert their self-interest or rights by litigation.” Indeed, one can find echoes of this on the streets of China today. In the span of a few weeks, I saw several instances where minor traffic collisions had occurred. When this happens in the United States, drivers generally exchange insurance information and move on; in Beijing, the parties involved were engaged in heated negotiation, often surrounded by a crowd that had enthusiastically joined the proceedings.
In China, things were happening in traffic faster than the government could keep pace. A few decades ago, a city such as Beijing did not have much in the way of cars, or even commutes. Privately owned vehicles were illegal, and many workers lived and worked in the same unit, known as the danwei. In 1949, Beijing had 2,300 automobiles. In 2003 it had 2 million—and this number is rapidly growing, with the capital adding upward of 1,000 new cars a day. A sweeping new Road Safety Act, the country’s first, was passed in 2004 to cope with the radically changing traffic dynamics, but it has not been without controversy, particularly when it comes to assigning fault in a crash. Zhang Dexing, with the Beijing Transportation Research Center, told me of a well-known case in 2004 that involved a husband and wife, new arrivals to the city, who were illegally walking on the highway. A driver struck the two, killing the wife. Although the pedestrians’ presence on the highway was illegal, the driver was still found partially at fault and was forced to pay the husband several hundred thousand renminbi (nearly U.S. $20,000).
One key to understanding traffic culture is that laws themselves can explain only so much. As important, if not more so, are the cultural norms, or the accepted behavior of a place. Indeed, laws are often just norms that have been codified. Take the example of the laws that say that in the United States, one must drive on the right side of the road, while in the United Kingdom, one must drive on the left side of the road. These emerged not from careful scientific study or lengthy legislative debate about the relative safety of each approach but from cultural norms that existed long before the car.
As the historian Peter Kincaid describes it, the reason why you drive on the right or left today has to do with two things. The first is that most people are right-handed. The second is that different countries were using different forms of transportation at the time that formalized rules of the road began to emerge. The way in which the first consideration interacted with the second consideration explains how we drive today. Thus a samurai in Japan, who kept his scabbard on his left side and would draw with his right arm, wanted to be on the left as he passed potential enemies on the road. So Japan today drives on the left. In England, horse-drawn carts were generally piloted by drivers mounted in the seat. The mostly right-handed drivers would “naturally” sit to the right, holding the reins in the left hand and the whip in the right. The driver could better judge oncoming traffic by traveling on the left. So England drives on the left. But in many other countries, including the United States, a driver often walked along the left side of his horse team or rode the left horse in a team (the left-rear horse if there were more than two), so that he could use his right arm for better control. This meant it was better to stay to the right, so he could judge oncoming traffic and talk to other drivers. The result is that many countries today drive on the right.
Even when laws are ostensibly the same, norms help explain why traffic can feel so different in different places. Driving on the Italian autostrada for the first time, for example, can be a shock to the uninitiated. Left-lane driving is reserved for passing, and for many drivers in the left lane, their entire trip is one epic overtaking, a process known in Italy as il sorpasso, a phrase freighted with additional meanings in social mobility. Get in the way of someone in the midst of a sorpasso and they will soon drive so close that you can feel, on the back of your neck, the heat of their headlights, which they’re flashing furiously. This is less a matter of aggressiveness than incredulousness at your violation of the standard.
“The law in most European countries is to drive as far to the right as is practical,” explained Per Garder, a Swedish professor of traffic engineering who now teaches at the University of Maine. “But in America that’s just on paper—the person who comes from behind almost always yields to the person in front, while in Italy it’s the person behind. You are supposed to move away and let them pass. As an American driver it is difficult to remember, especially if you’re going above the speed limit yourself—why shouldn’t you be allowed to be in the passing lane?” In the United States, a rather hazy norm (and a confusing array of laws) says that the left lane is reserved for the fastest traffic, but this is not as rigidly ingrained as it is in Italy. In fact, in the United States one is likely to see the occasional reaction (passive-aggressive braking, refusal to move, etc.) to Italian-style tailgating. Americans, perhaps out of some sense that equality or fairness or individual rights have been violated, seem to take these acts more personally. In Italy, which has a historically weak central government and overall civic culture, the citizenry relies less on the state for articulating concepts like fairness and equality. This, at least, was the theory presented to me in Rome by Giuseppe Cesaro, an official with the Automobile Club d’Italia. “In American movies, they always say, ‘I pay taxes. I have my rights.’ In Italy no one’s going to say this. You pay taxes? Then you are a fool.”
Norms may be cultural, but traffic can also create its own culture. Consider the case of jaywalking in New York City and Copenhagen. In both places, jaywalking, or crossing against the light, is technically prohibited. In both places, people have been ticketed for doing it. But the visitor to either city today will witness a shocking study in contrast. In New York City, where the term jaywalking was popularized, originally referring to those hapless bumpkins, or country “jays,” who came to the city with little notion of how to perambulate properly in big-city traffic, waiting for the signal is now the sign of a novice from the sticks. By contrast, the average Copenhagen resident seems to have a biological aversion to crossing against the light. Early on a freezing Sunday morning in January, not a car in sight, and they’ll refuse to jaywalk—this in a city with the largest anarchist commune in the world! They’ll stop, draw in a breath, perhaps tilt their head a bit skyward to catch a snowflake. They’ll gaze at shop windows, or look lost in thought. Then the signal will change, and they’ll move on, almost reluctantly.
It is tempting to chalk up the differences purely to culture. In New York City, a melting pot of clashing traditions and a hotbed of ruthless and obnoxious individualism, jaywalking is a way to distinguish yourself from the crowd and get ahead, a test of urban moxie. “Pedestrians look at cars, not lights,” Michael King, a traffic engineer in New York City, told me. Jaywalking also helps relieve overcrowded clusters at intersections. In Copenhagen, which historically has had a more homogenous, consensus-seeking population, jaywalking is an act of bad taste, an unnecessary departure from the harmony that sustains communities. Waiting for the light to change, like waiting for spring, seems a test of the stoic and wintry Scandinavian soul. In the 1930s, the Danish-Norwegian novelist Aksel Sandemose famously described a set of “laws” (called the Jantelagen) inspired by the small Danish town in which he was raised. They all basically had the same theme: Do not think you are better than anyone else. The “Jante laws” are a still popular shorthand toward explaining the relative social cohesion and egalitarian nature of Scandinavian societies, and it’s not hard to imagine them applied to traffic. Jaywalking, like speeding or excessive lane changing (which one rarely sees on Danish roads), is just a form of ostentatious narcissism that disrupts communal village life.
When I offered these theories to the celebrated urban planner Jan Gehl as we sat in his office in Copenhagen, he brushed them aside and countered with a rival theory: “I think the whole philosophy of the city means you have good-quality sidewalks and frequent intersections. You know you only have to wait for a short while and then it gets green.” By contrast, his firm had recently completed a study of London. “We found it was completely complicated to get across any street. We found that only twenty-five percent of the people actually did what the traffic planners suggested to do,” he said. The more you make things difficult for pedestrians, Gehl argued, the more you downgrade their status in the traffic system, “the more they start to take the law into their own hands.” I thought back to New York City, where the lights on Fifth Avenue seem purposely timed so that walkers have to pause at every intersection. Was it New York’s traffic system, and not New Yorkers themselves, that made the city the jaywalking capital of the United States?
There is an iron law in traffic engineering: The longer pedestrians have to wait for a signal to cross, the more likely they are to cross against the signal. The jaywalking tipping point seems to be about thirty seconds (the same time, it turns out, after which cars waiting to make a left turn against traffic begin to accept shorter, more dangerous gaps). The idea that waiting time might be the real explanation behind jaywalking was brought home to me one afternoon in London as I looked at brightly colored computer maps of pedestrian crossings with Jake Desyllas, an urban planner who heads Intelligent Space. On certain streets in London, he pointed out, the proportion of people who crossed only during the “green man” would be 75 percent, but on a neighboring street, the number would be drastically lower. It was not that the culture of people waiting to cross the street changed as they walked one block, but rather that one street-crossing design paid more heed to pedestrians than the other. Not surprisingly, the places where it took pedestrians longer to get across had more informal crossings. At one of the worst spots in London, the crossing to the Angel tube station across the A1 Street in Islington, Desyllas found that pedestrians who make it to the center island can wait as long as sixty-two seconds for a “Walk” signal. The city is virtually compelling pedestrians to jaywalk.
As if traffic were not complicated enough, there is the additional problem that it regularly throws together people with different norms. Because each is convinced they are right—and traffic laws often disprove neither—they’re that much more primed to “go off” at the other’s perceived mis-deeds (e.g., late merging, left-lane tailgating). Traffic also tosses together those with local knowledge and lesser-educated outside users, the pros with the amateurs. Any time-starved city dweller who has been stuck walking behind a group of slow-moving tourists has come across this phenomenon; proposals have been made for pedestrian “express lanes” in New York’s Times Square or London’s Oxford Street for this reason. Or take the local driver trapped behind someone looking for an unfamiliar address. The banal boulevard that one driver has seen a million times and wants to hurry through will be a fascinating spectacle for another driver, worthy of slow appreciation. In Florida, two bumper stickers embody this struggle: I BRAKE FOR BEACHES and SOME OF US AREN’T ON VACATION.
What’s striking is how quickly the local norms can be picked up. Years of driver training or habit can be washed away like dirt from a windshield. David Shinar, an expert in the psychology of traffic at Israel’s Ben-Gurion University, argues this point: “If you take an Israeli driver and transplant him to Savannah, Georgia, I guarantee that within two months he will be driving like the people there, like everyone around him. And if you transport someone from the American Midwest to Tel Aviv, within days he will be driving like an Israeli—because if he doesn’t, he’ll get nowhere.” And so, like the visitor to England who begins to appreciate lukewarm beer, astute drivers will echo local inflections like the “Pittsburgh left,” that act of driving practiced primarily in the Steel City (but also Beijing) in which the change of a traffic light to green is an “unofficial” signal for a left-turning driver to quickly bolt across the oncoming traffic. New arrivals to Los Angeles soon become versed in the “California roll,” a.k.a. the “sushi stop,” which involves never quite coming to a complete halt at a stop sign.
Traffic is like a language. It generally works best if everyone knows and obeys the rules of grammar, though slang can be brutally effective. If you’re absolutely unfamiliar with it, it will seem confusing, chaotic, and fast. Learn a few words, and patterns begin to emerge. Become more fluent, and suddenly it all begins to make sense. Rome presents an interesting example here. As I mentioned in the Prologue, Rome has been grappling with traffic problems since it became Rome. As Caesar tried to ban carts, so did Mussolini, the “Twentieth-Century Caesar,” try to regulate the city to his whims. Il Duce, as one story goes, grew so impatient with the chaos on the Via Corso that he attempted, in vain, to force pedestrians to walk in only one direction on each side of the street. Appropriately for a city whose history is steeped in mythology, the Roman driver has assumed an almost mythological status.
Roman driving is distinguished by space and pace. The narrowness of most streets, coupled with the quick acceleration of small, manually shifted cars, enhances the feeling of speed. Drivers focus on entering the smallest gaps possible. As Cesaro, the official with the Automobile Club d’Italia, explained one afternoon in his office on the Via Nazionale, Roman traffic behavior is “simply a need—there are so many cars on the tight road. We are always side by side. Sometimes we start talking to each other. The traffic lights change two or three times. Sometimes we become friends.” Stuck at those lights, the car driver will notice a steady stream of scooters slowly filtering to the front of the queue, like the grains in a snow globe settling on the bottom. “They should follow rules like cars,” said Paolo Borgogne, also of the ACI, of Rome’s legions of scooters, “but for some reason it is believed they don’t need to…. Traffic lights, for instance, they consider furniture on the corner of the road.” But things are changing: Whereas for years scooter drivers required no license, a patentino, or “small driver’s license,” is now mandatory.
As with Delhi, however, it’s not difficult to imagine that Roman traffic jams would be worse if scooters (which make up one-fifth of the traffic) always acted like cars. And the legendarily “crazy” Roman traffic might just be a matter of interpretation. Max Hall, a physics teacher in Massachusetts who often rides his collection of classic Vespas and Lambrettas in Rome, says that he finds it safer to ride in Rome than in Boston. Not only are American drivers unfamiliar with scooters, he maintains, but they resent being passed by them: “In Rome car and truck drivers ‘know’ they are expected not to make sudden moves in traffic for fear of surprising, and hurting, two-wheeler drivers. And two-wheeler drivers drive, by and large, expecting not to be cut off.” In this regard, Rome is safer than other Italian cities where fewer riders wear helmets and studies have shown that scooters are much more likely to have collisions with cars. Reaching for the language of physics, Hall says, “The poetic and beautiful result is that four-wheelers behave like fixed objects, by moving very little relative to each other, even at significant speeds, while two-wheeler traffic moves ‘through’ the relatively static field of larger vehicles.”
Thinking that the key to truly understanding Roman traffic might lie in physics, one afternoon I went to visit Andrea De Martino, a physicist with the Laboratory of Complex Systems at the University of Rome. In his office at La Sapienza, he drew diagrams on the chalkboard and spoke of “network optimalization” and “resource competition.” Then he talked about Rome. “My girlfriend is not from Rome, she’s not Italian,” he said. “She tried to understand the logic behind the fact that a car can just cross the road even if it sees you coming. There is no logic.” He contrasted this to driving in Germany, which he’d found to be “marvelous.” This was not the first time I’d heard a Roman praise driving in some other, more “orderly,” country. I asked him: If everyone likes it so much, why don’t they drive that way here? He said: “I like the German system—in Germany.”
One could drive like a Roman in Frankfurt, or drive like a Frankfurter in Rome, only one might not do so well in either situation. But why is that? Where do these norms come from? The simplest answer may be that Romans drive the way they do because other Romans do.
This idea was expressed in a series of experiments by the psychologist Robert Cialdini. In one study, handbills were placed on the windshields of cars in a parking garage; the garage was sometimes clean and sometimes filled with litter. In various trials, a nearby “confederate” either littered or simply walked through the garage. They did this when the garage was filled with litter and when it was clean. The researchers found that the subjects, upon arriving at their cars, were less likely to litter when the garage was clean. They also found that subjects were more likely to litter when they observed someone else littering, but only if the garage was already dirty.
What was going on? Cialdini argues there are two different norms at work: an “injunctive norm,” or the idea of what people should do (the “ought” norm), and a “descriptive norm,” or what people actually do (the “is” norm). While injunctive norms can have an impact, it was the descriptive norm that was clearly guiding behavior here: People littered if it seemed like most other people did. If only one person was seen littering in a clean garage, people were less likely to litter—perhaps because the other’s act was so clearly violating the injunctive norm. This is why so many public-service advertising campaigns fall on deaf ears, Cialdini and others have suggested. An advertisement about the many billions of dollars lost to tax cheating draws attention to the problem, but it also whispers: Look how many other people are doing it (and getting away with it). Who is violating a norm is also important: Studies of pedestrians have found that walkers are more likely to cross against the light when a “high-status” (i.e., well-dressed) person first does so; they’re less likely to cross when that same person doesn’t. “Low-status” violators prompt less imitative behavior either way.
Traffic is filled with injunctive norms, telling drivers what to do and what not to do. But the descriptive norm is often saying something else—and saying it louder. The most common example is the speed limit. The law on many U.S. highways is 65 miles per hour, but a norm has gradually emerged that says anything up to 10 miles per hour above that is legal fair game. Raise the speed limit, and the norm tends to shift; driving the speed limit starts to seem hazardous.
Some norms seem to hold more strongly than others. Leonard Evans, a trained physicist and traffic-safety researcher who worked for General Motors for more than thirty years, gives an example: “It’s two a.m., some guy’s just been speeding, to save time. He comes to this intersection. There’s no traffic in sight anywhere. He sits stationary for thirty seconds. Objectively speaking, he is causing far more risk by his exceeding the speed limit than he would be if he stopped at the red light, looked this way and that way, and just went through it. But we have a robust social norm in the U.S. You just do not consciously and casually drive through a completely red light. Unfortunately, we don’t have a robust norm against not going fast after it’s turned green.” Both acts are technically against the law, each bear similar penalties, but one act seems more illegal than the other. Perhaps in speeding the driver feels as if he’s in control, while going through a red light, even carefully, puts one at the mercy of others. He may also speed because most other people do (whereas if everyone decided to cross through red lights, anarchy would ensue).
Most traffic laws around the world are remarkably similar. Many places have relatively similar roads and traffic markings. But the norms of each place are subtly different, and norms are powerful, curious things. Laws do not dictate how people should queue up in the United Kingdom or China—nor should they, most would argue—but try queuing up in either place and you will notice a striking difference. In the United Kingdom, queues are famously orderly, but in China, they often exist more in theory than reality—queue jumping, along with jaywalking, was another behavior targeted by the Chinese government for extinction before the 2008 Olympics.
Similarly, economists have long been puzzled by the fact that, in most places, restaurant patrons tip their server after they have already been served—which may boost the incentive for the server to give good service but hardly increases the incentive for the patron to tip well. Mysterious, too, is that patrons tip even in the face of further erosion of these incentives—if their service was less than desirable or if they don’t plan to return to the same restaurant. Studies have shown the link between tip and service quality to be slight. People seem to tip because it’s seen as the right thing to do, or because they don’t want it known that they’ve not done the right thing. There’s no law that says that patrons have to tip; they simply follow the norm.
In traffic, norms represent some kind of subtle dance with the law. Either the norms and laws move in time or one partner is out of step. In Florence, observes the writer Beppe Severigni, the locals have a phrase, rosso pieno, or “full red,” for a traffic signal. This implies that there are other reds that are less “full.” These distinctions are not noted by law, but they help explain actual behavior. Yet where do these norms come from? How do they adhere to or depart from the law? It seems that the most significant norm of all, as the legal scholar Amir Licht has noted, is the “deeper, more general norm of obeying the law.” When you step off a curb because you have the “Walk” light or drive through a green light expecting not to be hit by another driver, it is not the law per se that protects you but other drivers’ willingness to follow the law. Laws explain what we ought to do; norms explain what we actually do. In that gap dwells a key to understanding why traffic behaves the way it does in different places.
Danger: Corruption Ahead—the Secret Indicator of Crazy Traffic
In 1951, some 852 people were killed on the roads in China. In the United States in that year, 35,309 people were killed in traffic. In 1999, traffic fatalities in China had risen to nearly 84,000. The U.S. figure, meanwhile, was 41,508. The population of both countries had almost doubled in that time. Why did fatalities rise so much higher in China than in the United States?
The answer lies in the number of vehicles in each country. In 1951, there were about 60,000 motor vehicles in China, while in the United States, there were roughly 49 million. By 1999, when China had 50 million vehicles, the United States had over 200 million—four times as many. And yet twice as many people were killed on Chinese roads than American ones. How could the country with so many fewer vehicles have so many more deaths?
This strange equation has become known as Smeed’s law, after a 1949 paper, humbly titled “Some Statistical Aspects of Road Safety Research,” by the British statistician and road-safety expert R. J. Smeed. What Smeed’s law showed was that, across a number of countries, ranging from the United States to New Zealand, the number of people killed on the roads tended to rise as the number of cars on the road began to rise—up to a point—and then, gradually if not totally uniformly, the fatality rates began to drop, as, generally, did the absolute numbers of fatalities.
Smeed suspected that two things were going on: One, as the number of deaths grows higher, so too do people begin to clamor for something to be done about it (as began to happen in the United States in the 1960s, when fatalities were topping 50,000 people a year). Second, Smeed proposed that a sort of national learning curve was at work. The more cars on the road, the more people are “growing up” and learning how to sort out the problems of traffic—with better highway engineering, stronger laws, safer vehicles, and a more developed traffic culture itself (and perhaps more congestion, which tends to lower traffic fatalities).
In China, one sees things that make the hair stand on end—like bicycles traveling on restricted highways, scooter drivers carrying several children without helmets, and drivers stopping on the highway to urinate—but presumably, a number of years down the road, these things will largely be only memories. The dynamics of Smeed’s law may help explain a curious phenomenon noted by Rong Jiang, a Beijing Institute of Technology transportation engineer. Studies had suggested that the crash rate was actually higher on the high-speed, divided “luxury roads” of the new China, he said, than on the two-lane rural highways. This is exactly the opposite of what happens almost everywhere else. He suspected that drivers were not adequately trained for the new high-speed roads. “The drivers were used to low speed on the open road,” he explained. “But if they travel along the freeway, they keep the same habits. If their vehicle has a malfunction they will just park on the shoulder, without any alerting equipment. There are many such collisions.”
Smeed’s law, if history serves as a guide, is why one cannot simply look at the current horrific numbers of road deaths in countries like China and India and the relatively low levels of car ownership and assume that fatalities will continue to rise proportionally as more people get more cars. It may seem hard to imagine, but there is already progress of sorts even in China’s massive death toll: While more people are dying on China’s roads than ever before, the Chinese fatality rate, as measured in number of deaths per thousand registered vehicles, has actually been dropping.
Smeed’s law is complicated, however, by a few factors that make China and India different from the countries Smeed considered. The first is that most people dying in traffic in the developing world are dying not in cars but outside cars. More than half of the people killed on the road in the United States are drivers or passengers, whereas in a country such as Kenya the figure can be as low as 10 percent. In Delhi, the occupants of cars represent only 5 percent of fatalities, while pedestrians, cyclists, and motorcyclists make up a staggering 80 percent. In places like the United States and England, motorization was an evolutionary process. However novel they may have been, the first automobiles, the “horseless carriages,” could still be understood in terms of what had come before. The speeds were slow, the number of cars few.
China and India, by contrast, are seeing a vast flood of modern cars surging onto what are, in some cases, premodern roads. The Lexus and the rickshaw are thrust onto the same thoroughfare. Another consequence of this dizzyingly fast motorization is that people of all ages who have never before driven in their lives are being put on the road at once. In 2004 it was estimated that nearly one out of every seven drivers on the road in Beijing was a novice. The rapidly evolving Chinese insurance industry was dealing with customers who were reporting as many as thirty claims in a multiyear period. Some insurers reported accident risk for certain classes of individuals at nearly 100 percent—virtually moving them from the category of “accident risk” to the paradoxical “accident certainty.”
In the harsh language of economics, the massive traffic fatalities and unsafe road systems in developing countries might be seen as temporarily necessary “negative externalities.” In other words, like pollution or poor working conditions, they are just another price those countries have to pay in order to “catch up.” Indeed, one might read the frenetic traffic behavior as somehow expressing the soul of noisy, dirty, clamoring entrepreneurial and industrial cities. Calm and safe traffic, the argument might go, is fine for those who can afford it (e.g., Switzerland). Let us get the cars and motorcycles on the road first, let us get people commuting to jobs, and then we can worry about safety. This is why, even as the rates for things like diseases begin to drop as countries get wealthier, traffic fatalities—a “disease of development”—rise until that point, as formulated by Smeed’s law, where they begin to drop. When East Germany was reunited with West Germany in 1990, the traffic fatality rate in the former Communist country quadrupled: More people bought cars, drove them more often, and at higher speeds (the East German speed limit of 100 kilometers per hour on autobahns was raised to West Germany’s 130). While the fatality rate is still higher in the eastern half of the country, it began to drop again after 1991.
It is eerily striking how closely fatalities can be tracked in economic terms. A country’s motorization rate is linked in a somewhat linear fashion to its gross domestic product: the more money, the more cars. Researchers use the rough benchmark of a $5,000 per capita GDP as the point at which car ownership rates begin to accelerate. As work by the World Bank economists Elizabeth Kopits and Maureen Cropper shows, countries with very low GDPs have low numbers of fatalities per population (there are simply not that many cars, even if the rates per vehicle might be high). As the GDP grows, there is a sharp upward curve in fatalities. The rate per vehicle begins to drop with minor increments in the GDP—for example, when per capita GDP climbs from $1,200 to $4,400, the fatality risk per vehicle drops by a factor of three. After studying the data from eighty-eight countries from 1963 to 1999, Kopits and Cropper concluded that the fatalities per person begin to drop only when a country’s GDP hits $8,600 (in 1985 dollars); they eventually hit levels lower than those of countries with much smaller per capita GDPs. Projecting these numbers outward, Kopits and Cropper concluded that India, for example, where the GDP (using that same 1985 standard) was $2,900 in 2000, will not see its road death rate decline until 2042.
Must this be so? Must history be a guide, must it preordain the future? Must that many people die on the roads? When one compares the rankings of per capita GDP and the traffic fatality rate, they gloomily do seem to correspond. Norway, for example, ranked as having the world’s third-highest GDP in 2005 by the International Monetary Fund, was among the world’s top three countries that year in terms of traffic safety. Uganda, on the other hand, ranked 154th in the world in terms of GDP, has one of the world’s highest traffic fatality rates, some 160 deaths per 10,000 vehicles (a rate that will presumably rise, up to a point, as its GDP rises). The reasons are not hard to understand: lower-quality roads and infrastructure, fewer hospitals and doctors, less-safe vehicles. In Nigeria, where the buses are nicknamed “moving morgues” and “flying coffins,” the situation was summed up by one commuter: “Many of us know most of the buses are death traps but since we can’t afford the expensive taxi fares, we have no choice but to use the buses.”
Sometimes, however, countries that have very similar levels of GDP can have varying levels of traffic risk. One of the most striking cases of this involves Belgium and the Netherlands. They are virtually identical in per capita GDP, but in Belgium, the traffic fatality rate is more than twice as high as the Netherlands (even though life expectancy itself is slightly higher in Belgium). These two countries share a border, even a language—why should Belgium be so much more dangerous? Perhaps it has to do with population density. Studies have shown that the less densely populated a place, the higher the risk of traffic fatalities. And, it turns out, the Netherlands crams more people into less space, while the Belgians have more room to roam. The nonfatal crash rate, on the other hand, is usually higher in more densely populated places: There are more people to run into. In Belgium that rate, too, was nearly twice as high as in the Netherlands. What about motorization levels? The higher the level of motorization, the more the fatality risk tends to drop—but where the Netherlands had only 422 vehicles per thousand people in 1999, Belgium had 522. Traffic laws might seem a good explanation, except that both Belgium and the Netherlands have similar speed limits and blood alcohol concentration restrictions.
So why is Belgium a more dangerous place to drive? An answer of sorts may be found in another kind of index, one that more or less aligns with the GDP but often diverges in interesting ways: corruption. According to indices compiled by the anticorruption watchdog Transparency International, the Netherlands was ranked number nine in 2006, while Belgium appeared much farther down the list, at number twenty.
What does this have to do with traffic? Most people tend to think of corruption by the standard definition of the use of public office for private gain. Working out from that, however, we might consider corruption as being indicative of a larger lack of faith in the law. In his book Why People Obey the Law, the legal scholar Tom Tyler posits that people generally comply with laws less because they are deterred by the penalties of not doing so, or because they have calculated it’s in their best self-interest, and more because they think it’s the right thing to do. Yet they are more likely to think it is the right thing, argues Tyler, if they perceive that the legal authorities are legitimate. People who go to traffic court, Tyler found, are less concerned with the outcome—even when it is a costly ticket or fine—than with the fairness of the process. When there is less respect for the law, there is a lesser cost (or greater gain) for not following it. Less effective governance means that laws are less effective, which means that people are less likely to follow them.
In Belgium, it may be no coincidence that the country both ranks comparatively poorer on the corruption index and has a public that seems less interested in following traffic laws. Lode Vereeck, a Belgian economist at Hasselt University, has noted that in survey after survey of people’s attitudes toward traffic regulations, Belgians seem resistant; they’re more hostile than their neighbors to things like seat-belt laws, lower speed limits, and drunk-driving laws (and also more likely to drink before driving, if surveys can be believed). At the same time, according to Vereeck, the number of violations recorded by Belgian police dropped from 1993 to 1999—even though Belgium’s roads clearly did not get safer. A driver was also less likely to get a traffic fine in Belgium than in its neighbor to the north: The Netherlands, with roughly 50 percent more people (and a lower motorization rate), issued nearly eight times the number of tickets in 2000.
While the laws in Belgium and the Netherlands may be similar, it seems there is a different attitude to following and enforcing those laws. Some researchers have argued that Belgium’s system of yielding at unmarked intersections, known as priorité de droite, or “yield to the right,” is the real reason for Belgium’s extraordinary fatality rates. But most of these intersections are in urban areas, which typically see nonfatal crashes. In any case, the priorité de droite itself simply speaks to the larger issue: a resistance against regulation (in the form of stop signs or traffic lights) and a lack of interest in following the existing rules. As the examples in Chapter 7 pointed out, traffic can be made to move well and safely with no signs at all, if strong enough social norms are in place.
The nations that rank as the least corrupt—such countries as Finland, Norway, New Zealand, Sweden, and Singapore—are also the safest places in the world to drive. Sweden, of course, practically oozes safety, from its flagship Volvos to its “Vision Zero” policy, which seeks the eventual elimination of all traffic fatalities (it passed this even after it already had the world’s lowest traffic fatality rate). The British traffic psychologist Ian Walker tells the story about how a group of researchers equipped a car with cameras and got a group of Swedish military conscripts to drive around for a while. The purpose was to see how having passengers would affect a recruit’s driving. “They thought, Put four young guys in a car and give them free rein—they’ll go nuts,” Walker says. “Actually, the guys were saying, ‘Careful, slow down.’”
In Finland, which has one of the lowest crash rates in the world, drivers are given fines based on a complicated calculus primarily involving their after-tax income. The law, intended to counter the regressive nature of speeding tickets (they take up a larger part of a poor person’s income than a rich person’s), has led to some very high-profile speeding tickets, such as Internet entrepreneur Jaakko Rytsölä’s $71,400 tab for going 43 miles per hour in a 25-mile-per-hour zone. There has been some grumbling, especially among the wealthy, but the law remains popular; in 2001, the legislature overwhelmingly rejected a cap on fines. Women seem to find the fine more fair than men (this is interesting for several reasons, which I will return to shortly). But what’s remarkable about sliding-scale speeding tickets is not necessarily whether they get people to slow down. It’s that in Finland legislators have the confidence to pass laws that unilaterally impose high costs on breaking the law, that traffic police will actually issue the fines rather than accept what in theory could be a huge bribe, and that the public, by and large, feels all this is fair.
It’s true that Norway and Sweden are among the wealthiest countries in the world and, having taken care of the basic needs of their societies (e.g., getting everyone food and running water, establishing political stability), they can move on to things like safer roads. But as the case of Belgium shows, GDP itself is not necessarily a predictor for the safeness of the roads. France, traditionally one of the more dangerous countries in Europe to drive in, lowered the number of people killed on its roads from 7,721 in 2001 to just under 5,000 in 2005. It is not as if the French GDP soared during this period; in fact, it was rather stagnant.
What France did was buy Breathalyzers and automated speed cameras by the thousands and overhaul its points system for violations. It brought accountability to a system that had been plagued by chronic traffic ticket “fixing.” (One study found that a third of the male employees at a national utility company had had tickets fixed and that those who had were also more likely to have been in a crash). Ticket fixing is so endemic in France that starting in 1958, incoming presidents declared amnesty on a range of traffic violations, from minor to fairly serious—a rather self-defeating measure that itself has been blamed for hundreds of traffic fatalities. The traffic-ticket holiday was curtailed by Jacques Chirac and seems to be on its way out altogether. France, in at least one way, is becoming less corrupt (indeed, it did drop a few places on the index during those same years).
The lesson is that wealth seems to affect traffic fatalities but corruption may affect them even more. It could just be that lifting GDP lowers corruption and traffic fatalities. But a study by a group of U.S. economists concluded that the statistical relationship between corruption (as measured by the International Country Risk Guide) and traffic fatalities was actually stronger than the link between income and traffic fatalities. What they were saying, essentially, is that money is not enough. Even when countries become wealthy enough to start shifting attention to things like traffic safety, one still needs credible laws and credible people to enforce the laws. New Zealand, which is one of the five least corrupt countries in the world, is below countries like Austria and Spain in GDP but has safer roads, as measured by fatalities per 10,000 vehicles. Russia, on the other hand, is ranked as more corrupt than other countries at similar development levels, and its roads reflect that fact: Moscow is filled with notoriously corrupt traffic cops and cars blazing through traffic jams with ersatz blue sirens. Russia itself reportedly accounts for two-thirds of Europe’s road fatalities.
The complex question of why poorer countries seem to suffer from more corruption and whether that corruption is a bad thing in itself has long been debated among economists and social scientists. Some argue that “efficient corruption” is a useful and necessary cost of rapid economic development, that bribes and rule skirting can be used to outwit creaky centralized bureaucracies. Others counter that corrupt politicians are not necessarily faster politicians, in terms of hustling development projects through, and may actually slow things down to get even more money. Corruption is a brake on development, they say. Countries like China, which are booming and have relatively widespread corruption, could be developing even faster if corruption were tamed, they contend. The first group argues that a system in which firms have to pay kickbacks to corrupt government officials means that the firm with the most “efficient” bid will also be able to afford the highest bribe, while the second group maintains that this system rewards inefficient firms. Daniel Kaufmann, an economist with the World Bank and a leading critic of corruption, uses the example of a firm that was disqualified because its bid was beneath the acceptable “minimum.”
With traffic, it’s arguably corruption that gets in the way of economic growth, not the other way around. While no economist would view a traffic jam as an efficient use of resources, traffic congestion can symbolize the economic vitality of a country (simply because miles driven usually increase in stronger economic times). “Bad” traffic can be seen as just an outcome of that success. But corruption itself can cause traffic problems, the sort that represent a drain on economic growth, not an outcome. Take, for example, the myriad roadblocks that are a daily fact of life in many developing countries. The process typically has little to do with vehicle inspection or safety and a lot to do with police or soldiers trying to extract something “for the boys.” Corruption does not speed a driver’s way through some bureaucratic tangle; rather, the tangle is formed because of corruption.
In some places, these systems are so entrenched that they can take on the logic of an economic system, a kind of “corruption pricing” instead of “congestion pricing.” A study of the bribes that Indonesian truckers had to pay at military checkpoints showed that the closer the truckers got to their destination, the higher the bribe. (The officials also charged more for newer trucks and trucks carrying valuable cargo.) When the number of checkpoints dropped after the military scaled back its forces, the average bribe per checkpoint increased, leaving the researchers to conclude that fewer traffic officials may be better (although their absence may invite criminals to take their place).
As the economist Tim Harford observed after a visit to Cameroon (one of the world’s poorest and most corruption-plagued countries), corruption in traffic is tremendously unfair and inefficient. Protracted “inspections” and bartering over small amounts slows the flow of goods and people. The money goes into the pockets of underpaid officials, not to fixing roads or making them safer. Trip times and costs become wildly unpredictable. Robert Guest, Africa correspondent for the Economist, wrote of once accompanying the driver of a Guinness beer truck on a three-hundred-mile journey in Cameroon. The trip, which might have taken twenty hours elsewhere, took four days. The reason was in part the crumbling roads, but also the forty-seven checkpoints at which they were forced to stop for dubious safety inspections and petty bribes. Drivers suffer not only the hardship of bad roads but the privilege of paying to use them. The bribes paid and the ensuing delays get passed on to beer consumers in the form of higher prices. Guest’s suggestion: “Lift those roadblocks and put the police to work repairing potholes.”
Corruption begins at street level. The traffic cop is its foot soldier, the agent of bad traffic. He pulls over motorists for phantom violations, reducing not only traffic flow but the incentive for any driver to follow the law. Some argue that corrupt cops increase the incentive to follow the law because these cops are that much more on the lookout for excuses to issue a fine, but this presumes they are actually pulling people over for legitimate reasons. As one of the average person’s primary interfaces with the legal system, the traffic cop becomes a symbol of the legitimacy of the regime. And what about the traffic he’s directing? Corruption casts its shadow there as well.
To return to the frenetic streets of Delhi: My impression was that many drivers did not seem to be particularly qualified for a license. There’s a good reason for this. A study conducted by a team of researchers for the U.S. National Bureau of Economic Research looked at the process of getting a driver’s license in Delhi. The group tracked 822 individuals in three groups: a “bonus” group, whose members would get a financial reward if they could obtain a license in the fastest time legally possible; a “lesson” group, whose members were given free driving lessons before they attempted to get the license; and a “comparison” group, which was given no special instructions.
The researchers found that those who wanted the license soonest—that is, the members of the bonus group—got it more often, and faster, than people in the other groups. The reason, it turned out, was that like many drivers in Delhi, they used an “agent” to speed the process. But when the researchers later gave all the survey participants a driving test, 69 percent of the bonus group failed, compared to just 11 percent of the drivers who had taken lessons. But learning to drive properly clearly did not pay off: The people who had the best driving skills were 29 percent less likely to get a license than the people with the worst driving skills. Corruption did indeed grease the wheels, but at the expense of the quality of those behind the wheel. “Corruption,” the authors wrote, “appears to substitute for actual driving skill.”
This study provides a hint about how the norms discussed in the previous section evolve and flourish. The scores of new drivers who land on Delhi streets each month learn the norms of a system made up of the collective experience of all the previous drivers who bribed their way through the Regional Transport Office. No small wonder this traffic system isn’t marked by scrupulous attention to formal rules. In the writer Pavan Varma’s description of what motivates corruption in India, it is not hard to see a metaphor for the country’s traffic 'margin-bottom:0cm;margin-bottom:.0001pt;text-align: justify;text-indent:12.0pt;line-height:normal'>What is surprising is how strong these corruption norms can be, even in a different context. In one study, the economists Ray Fisman and Edward Miguel looked at the number of parking tickets issued to diplomats in New York City between 1997 and 2002. During this time, diplomats could be given parking tickets, but there was no enforceable punishment for not paying them. Thus empowered, diplomats racked up some 150,000 tickets.
The tickets were not acquired randomly. The diplomats who got the most tickets tended to be from the countries deemed to be more corrupt by the Transparency International index (those countries also got more “egregious” tickets, such as for blocking fire hydrants). The countries whose diplomats received no tickets included Sweden, Norway, Japan, and Denmark—judged among the least corrupt countries. These countries were scrupulous in following the law, even when it was clearly not necessary. India, in case you were wondering, was roughly halfway down the list, just as it is on the corruption index. Lest you think I am singling out India, I might add that the United States embassy in London, as of 2007, owed the highest amount (ahead of even corruption-plagued Nigeria) of unpaid traffic congestion-pricing fees to the city of London. The United States, which claims that its diplomats are exempt from the congestion-pricing “tax,” is not one of the ten least corrupt countries (it was ranked twentieth in 2007). (The least-corrupt country, Finland, whose diplomats are also exempt from taxes, pays the charge.)
In traffic, laws are only as good as the norms regarding them. This may be why, as I discussed in Chapter 7, the engineer Hans Monderman could strip the signs from a roundabout and Dutch drivers would still act in a responsible, safe manner; and why, in other countries, a roundabout can be filled with signs and drivers will still act in an irresponsible, dangerous manner. Which brings us back to two questions: Are developing countries fated to have a disproportionate share of traffic fatalities? And how many of these fatalities come from lack of money, how many from laws or norms weakened by corruption? The passengers crowded into unsafely overloaded buses may be there because it’s the only transportation they can afford or because there is no one to stop the bus from being overloaded—perhaps because the government thinks it can’t afford to not let people ride the overcrowded bus.
The vexing, intertwined nature of this dilemma is reflected in a piece of Hindi slang I learned while in Delhi: jugad. The word has a shifting palette of meanings, mostly arrayed around the central idea of “creative improvisation.” It can refer, on the one hand, to the jury-rigged vehicles one finds in India, especially in rural areas. Lacking money for a car, say, a farmer will craft a functioning vehicle out of an old motorcycle, a car axle, and a diesel engine. That this jugad vehicle might not be safe, at least when it’s sharing the road with newer cars, is one of the clear kinds of traffic risks that come with lack of money.
But jugad is also used as a kind of surrogate for “bribe” here it refers to doing whatever needs to be done to get something accomplished. The case of the Delhi drivers who acquired licenses quickly is a form of jugad in practice. Would-be drivers know that corrupt bureaucrats respond more to money than driving skills. Is this kind of corruption, which has a ripple effect that translates into the myriad traffic violations that occur in Delhi every day—and studies suggest that the more traffic laws are violated, the more casualties there will be—purely an effect of lack of resources? Or is it, as many would argue, precisely the sort of thing that holds up the development of a country? If GDP and traffic fatalities are somewhat related, and GDP and corruption are somewhat related, and traffic fatalities and corruption seem to be the most clearly related, then fighting corruption may be the best way to lower traffic fatalities and raise GDP.
There are, after all, creative ways of combating corruption that do not require huge amounts of money. In Mexico City, Alfredo Hernández García, the city’s traffic czar, described a novel plan to fight corruption and improve traffic safety. In 2007, he noted, the last of the city’s male traffic officers had been phased out, replaced entirely by women (known as cisnes, or “swans”). Why? “Because women are less likely to be corrupted,” he explained in his office in the Secretaría de Seguridad Pública. Previously, Mexico City traffic cops were famous for soliciting refrescos or “soft drinks”—that is, bribes in lieu of a ticket. According to Hernández García, the cisnes have increased the number of tickets written on the order of 300 percent. They have been given handheld units to issue tickets and ensure payment—drivers can use credit cards—and take photographs. “People do not accept they are breaking the law,” he said. “We have to provide evidence.”
The theory of women as less corruptible may be based on more than the hunches of a few higher-ups in the police department. A study by a group of U.S. economists found that women were less likely to engage in hypothetical corruption, that female managers in one country they studied were less likely to engage in actual corruption, and that the countries that rank as least corrupt on the global indices tend to have more women in government. Indeed, they may be onto something: Finland, ranked as the least-corrupt country in the world, set the record in 2007 for having the government with the most women in cabinet-level positions. As you will recall, they do not mess about with their traffic tickets.