Saturday, July 09, 2005


rules of the road

Some rules are logical, some rules are convention -- they make sense if you accept the starting premise -- and some rules are cultural, it is just how things are done. I am starting to think that New Zealand's "give way" system of traffic management is cultural.

After a number of months driving in New Zealand, I realize something very odd: there are few traffic lights here. Perhaps in the past there wasn't that much traffic to justify traffic lights, but New Zealand today has one of the highest per capita car ownership rates in the world, and traffic can be congested. But it isn't just traffic lights: there are few stop signs either. In fact, nearly every intersection is governed by a system of "give way" (yield) rules. New Zealand is gaga for roundabouts (traffic circles), even in the middle of highways. One can even encounter strange hybrid roundabouts, involving three or five spokes instead of four, odd contortions that look anything but round.

The give way system offers the illusion that one doesn't need to stop, but the reality is quite different. I have heard that roundabouts are supposed to offer more efficient way to get cars through intersections than traffic lights. But in my experience, the system collapses when there is traffic congestion, which is often. People queue waiting for the person on their right to go. But that person also is waiting for a person on their right. And so on. What is described in the official Road Rules as a simple give way to the person on the right, in practice is a quagmire of confusion, as everyone is waiting, feeling it is their turn, but unsure if they really have the right of way.

I am also reminded of the failure of the give way system when I watch the television. Every day public service adverts are broadcast admonishing one to watch carefully in all directions when pulling out in a busy intersection. The unfortunate person in the ad get crushed by an oncoming car because she thought she had the right of way. By like a game of chess, she had to think several moves ahead to anticipate how someone else turning on the busy street perceived their right of way.

From a cognitive perspective, I think the give way system is deeply flawed. If one only needed to follow one variable it might work. Instead, yielding is conditional on a chain of prior claims. It is similar to trying to understand a compound, complex sentence while brush your teeth.

Traffic lights are much easier. You just need to be okay with being told to stop.

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