Some features of our society are so ubiquitous that we never pause to consider their impacts on our life, for better or for worse.
Take traffic lights, for example. Very few of us alive today can remember a time when the movement of people through an urban area was governed by individual discretion or by the assistance of actual human beings. Now, traffic lights, are the arbiters of the flow of human movement in just about any place where a car can go, and pedestrians are also now increasingly governed by these mindless machines.
“Traffic lights are a very crude, if you like, metaphor for being regulated and audited, told what to do rather than being able to take control of your own destiny. I think what we hate doing is being forced to do things that make no sense. The ultimate cry against bureaucracy is that it doesn’t make sense or its wasting time, if your blindly told to obey something or do something and you cant’ see the reason for it.” -Professor Susan Greenfield
A cool invention to be sure, but are traffic lights really the best way to govern traffic in our towns and cities? Could it be that traffic lights are actually causing more problems than they solve, without us having even considered their inefficiency? What would happen if we abandoned traffic lights, removed them, then left movement through busy intersections up to the cooperation and mutual respect of drivers?
Surely the world would fall into chaos, right? A total breakdown of civilization as we know it… complete anarchy maybe?
An experiment in Europe addressed some of these questions and had traffic psychologists look at this issue in the hopes of finding a better way to manage traffic. The results were rather astonishing, and said a great deal about the psychology of control vs. freedom.
Some of the down sides to traffic lights that were revealed were:
- Traffic lights unintelligently inhibit the organic flow of movement.
- Traffic lights create an environment where drivers are dangerously over-concerned about watching lights rather than other drivers, pedestrians or cyclists.
- Traffic lights dangerously encourage drivers to drive recklessly while approaching yellow lights, or when the light turns green after a long wait at red.
- Lights cause unnecessary delays to commuters.
- Lights cause undue stress on people who are forced to wait, often when no one else is in the intersection, and can contribute to road rage.
- Traffic lights make it difficult for pedestrians or cyclists to use transit routes because they give dominance to automobiles.
- Traffic lights contribute to air pollution because many cars will often be backed up and idling in a single location.
- Traffic lights use a tremendous amount of electricity and resources to operate and maintain.
Some of the incredible and surprising results of these experiments included:
- Traffic flows more freely in intersections without stop lights.
- Accidents were reduced, in some cases to none.
- Commute times were drastically reduced.
- People became more cautious and more respectful of each other.
- The environment became much more open for pedestrians, as drivers naturally had to be more alert and respecting of other people.
It should also be noted that there are some other obvious concerns with the role that traffic lights are playing in society today:
- The enforcement of traffic light laws has become a source of revenue for government revenue, rather than simply an issue of public safety.
- The enforcement of lights by police is a distraction from the interdiction of crimes which involve genuine victims.
- Traffic lights have become a danger to some people as a luring spot for criminals to take advantage of people.
- Traffic lights and intersections have become places were other tracking and control technologies are being deployed against people.
Are traffic lights really vital to public safety, or are they an overwhelming example of how being ruled by machines adds an inhuman dimension and source of frustration to human life?
How very interesting it would be to take a major city like Chicago or New York and turn off all of the traffic lights for 6 months to see what would happen. Could it be that we would witness a sharp increase in compassionate driving and pubic courtesy? Accidents are called such because people do not intentionally crash their vehicles. Giving people a reason to be more alert, aware and friendly may just make life a lot easier for people.
Of course, pondering a world without traffic lights brings an even bigger question. Do human beings need any of the social mechanisms and political controls in place in order to live in cooperation and in kind spirit?
About the Author
Alex Pietrowski is an artist and writer concerned with preserving good health and the basic freedom to enjoy a healthy lifestyle. He is a staff writer for WakingTimes.com and an avid student of Yoga and life.
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