Driving through a red light?

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Here’s an interesting story for you!

Last Wednesday I drove through a red light on the outskirts of Storrington, here in West Sussex.  It was at a road works, and the lights had locked onto red in both directions and were not changing. A two mile traffic jam resulted.

When would YOU go past a red light?

Once I had understood the situation, I turned my bike around and rode back to the lights, parked the bike and proceeded to direct traffic, like the good citizen I am. Within half an hour or so, with my encouragement, 200 or more other people had done the same and the rush-hour traffic jam was no more. It was perfectly possible to see past the road works (the works themselves were only the size of a large car with the two light masts set 3 metres apart from each other!) so there was no need for the lights, and as the nervous lady Community Support Officer turned on her heels I told her that I would be turning the broken lights sideways so traffic could flow again without me.

However: how is it that the CSO would not help the hundreds of stuck motorists but dismissed the problem with a wave of her hand?

Here is the conversation:

Her: “Excuse me sir, you can’t do that (me waving traffic through in turn, with drivers in both directions thanking me as they go past).”

Me: “Isn’t this what YOU are supposed to be doing?”

Her: “I’m not allowed to.”

Me: “But there are hundreds of motorists trying to get home.  Everwhere in Storrington (a mile away) is blocked solid because of this broken system”

Her: “Yes I know. I saw the queue when I was in Tescos(!). It happens. I’ve phoned the traffic light company and the police. They could be another two hours.”

Me: “Well, it seems I’m not so restricted in what I can do to help these people as you are.  I’ll continue to do this until the queues go, then we can turn the lights round so they face sideways. Then people will drive past without a problem.”

Her: “I can’t advise that. I’m not allowed to touch the lights. It is up to you.  I’m just going to walk back to my Land Rover.”

And she walked away.  And I cleared the traffic queues, made the necessary adjustments on my own, and everyone used their common sense and drove in turn past the parked-car sized obstruction without the slightest problem.

Yes, hundreds of drivers drove through a red light on Wednesday, including a fireman in his red car. I saw them. A few stopped, and pointed at the red light. I merely beckoned them on more ‘forcefully’ and they started again and drove on. And I wasn’t even wearing a yellow jacket.

Human beings are all too susceptible to mindless obedience. The Milgram Experiments and many like them have demonstrated that all too clearly. Robert Cialdini in his excellent book, Influence, describes the nature of social obedience.

And the moral to this story?

You decide, and write your comments below.

3 Replies to “Driving through a red light?”

  1. Andrew

    A great story. What if the only permission you needed was your own? People talk about waiting for ‘green lights’. What if there were no lights at all – and the speed, direction and timing of your journey was yours – and yours alone? What if the ‘red light’ was simply the outer contour of others’ imagination or expectation? What if all the controlling people in your life could be simply turned sideways?

    Nice.

  2. There are people that like doing and taking responsibility and people that like rules preventing them from doing. They also avoid taking responsibility. That’s why people like you and me work for ourselves and when we encounter problem like your broken traffic light we do our best to sort it out. We also have ‘community’ spirit unlike the lady with ‘community’ in her job title.

    I’m not sure if it’s mindless obedience or idleness and the inability to think and take responsibility.

  3. Fabulous, Andrew 🙂 It reminds me of your post re: speeding. There, led by someone who hadn’t separated who they are from what they do; shackled by title not free to make a decision that clearly benefited others: a ‘What the He’ll!” as Doc Brown in Back To The Future uttered so eruditely.
    So enjoyed this post, thank you.

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