Why Do We Stop On Red and Go On Green?

As you approach a red traffic light you place your foot on your car’s brake pedal. Perpendicular drivers place their feet upon their accelerators because their light is green. This orchestrated movement happens millions of times every day. It allows people to safely use the roads. Why does this system work? Why red-why green? Why do all drivers agree to obey these symbols? The system works because the governed consent to be governed. There is a consensus about the terms and conditions for using cars based upon the concept of providing the greatest good for the greatest number of people. We, as citizens, have determined that these simple devices are the most efficient means for controlling the motoring public, even if some ( such as blind people) are excluded from driving and are therefore inconvenienced. What would happen if we started to disregard these regulations? What if we drove forward or stopped regardless of the colors shown on the traffic lights? Certainly there would be some accidents. We currently see intersection accidents every day. However, what would happen if everyone decided , in the exercise of their individual freedom, to do exactly what they wanted to do? We would expect to have accidents – horrible , needless accidents, occurring with more and more frequency. The police would be stretched to the limit in order to control the lawbreaking. Yet, we all know that there are not enough police in the entire United States to make people “stop” at red and “go” on green. The people basically govern themselves. The police merely reinforce that consensus. The police ticket and occasionally arrest the small minority who disregard the rules of the community. Suppose it wasn’t a small minority who disobeyed the rules. Suppose it was a majority of the citizens; and there was no consensus about the meaning of red and green signals. The government would be powerless to supervise its citizens without their consent, or without the necessity of imposing martial law, as it does in times of national disaster or civil insurrection. Why do citizens stop on red? It appears to be based on some of the following: education and training, custom, law enforcement, safety, and the consensus concerning its utility. Citizens seem to acknowledge that this “give and take” system wherein you go and then I go provides for an orderly and efficient movement of traffic. This system ultimately promotes an individual’s own enlightened self-interest by preventing traffic gridlock. Without such a system no one could go anywhere. There would be no communally accepted guidelines for behavior. In recent years, we all have experienced situations in which this consensus has broken down. The following scenario is typical: drivers are stuck in the middle of an intersection. They are unable to go forward or backward. More and more drivers continue to inch into the intersection  as the traffic light alternately turns red and green. Drivers facing the “go” signal lean on their horns in indignation as their turn to drive forward is denied to them. The result is gridlock. Gridlock occurs when drivers ignore traffic rules for an intersection and, as a result of the anarchy created, no car can move. These irrational acts of  individual aggressiveness have become so common that traffic signs are now posted at major intersections in New York city admonishing drivers to avoid gridlock. The traffic signs urge drivers to obey the law so that they can get home more quickly. A rather simple idea that would seem self-evident. In Boston, the traffic situation has so deteriorated that policemen now patrol major intersections at rush hour to control traffic movement. This is necessary because there is no longer a consensus by drivers as to when to go and when to stop. A driver’s decision currently seems to be based upon situational ethics: can I get away with it; will anyone catch me; will I get a ticket; or will that other driver really hit me as he seems prepared to do, or will he, in the rush-hour game of “chicken,” turn away at the last possible moment. What rage and anger are festering in our fellow citizens that leads mature men and women to risk life and limb in 4000 lb. cars that are powered by huge engines? They are isolated and alienated from each other’s concerns by tinted glass, stereo systems, sunglasses, over-sized utility vehicles mounted on tremendous tires, and talk show-powered adrenaline. Where do people learn to govern themselves? How do they come to the goal of being informed citizens? How long does it take to become an educated person, that is, not someone who is formally educated but someone with knowledge of the rights and obligations of a citizen? The old wives’ tale is probably true. “Attitudes are shaped at your mother’s knee.” They begin with the non-verbal examples of one’s parents. Imagine the following scenario: As a two-year old child you are sitting in the front seat of your father’s car. He backs out of the driveway of your house. He enters the street and drives forward. He comes to an intersection. At the intersection there is a steel pole at the corner with a box on the top and lights within the box. You notice that the light which is illuminated and facing you is red. Your father stops the car. Up to that point your father has said nothing to you. Over dozens, perhaps hundreds of times, this occasion repeats itself each time you enter the car. As a three-year old you notice the light even before it is illuminated. You point to it and your father begins a familiar pattern. He says to you the words: “Light, red, stop; light green, go.” You learn the meaning of these symbols but it takes a long time, and it requires constant reinforcement. On other occasions, you walk to the store with your mother. She comes to a street corner and waits. She points to that light again – red and green. It must be important because your mother stops walking when it is red. Cars drive by when it is green. It is just like the situation with your dad in his car. The child begins to learn he is not an island but a social being who will develop, mature and flourish in a social environment. He or (she) will realize that society has rules that will in many ways limit, control, shape and even impinge upon his actions. He will understand that he does not have unlimited freedom. The United States is unique because the overwhelming majority of its citizens are immigrants or the descendents of immigrants. The process of consensus building therefore is important and useful. As immigrants arrived in the United States they were assimilated into the “melting pot” of American society. Whether Irish, French, Jewish, Spanish, Italian or a person of African descent, upon entering the country the different characteristics of each group combined to create a unique, zesty and powerful stew that nourished unparalleled growth and prosperity for all citizens. In contrast to the past, we now emphasize not what we have in common but what divides us. We promote separateness, differences, diversity, and excess individualism to the exclusion of the commonness necessary to bind us together as one people. The glue that held us together combined the best traits of each heritage’s accomplishments. It made a uniquely democratic people and very prosperous ones too. Why do we now act in the very manner likely to destroy these healthy underpinnings?

Why do we go on red and green?     

Copyright 2012

Arthur F. Licata 




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