South Africa's Pointsmen - an experiment in human behaviour?

in life •  last year

For those who've never experienced the adrenaline rush of Joburg traffic, the concept of pointsmen might be new to you. Joburg is known, fairly or unfairly (for those of us who've survived traffic in Tripoli, Libya, in the heyday of the Great Leader Muammar Khadafi, or the sheer terror of trying to get to the airport in Lagos, Nigeria, my vote leans towards "unfairly") as a city where minibus taxis rule and lawlessness prevails. What's a red light? A suggestion. What's the other side of the road if there isn't as much oncoming traffic as on my side? Fair game, if I'm a taxi driver. What's the sidewalk? Well, first of all, we're not overblessed with sidewalks here, even though the majority of the population still get around by walking long distances, but where there is one, by golly, that's a lane to a taxi driver.

And four way stops? Survival of the fittest....

I snapped this really poor shot of one of our JMPD (Johannesburg Metro Police Department) pointsmen a few afternoons ago from the passenger seat as I'd been thinking about what an incredible difference they make to our neighbourhood traffic. There were actually two working in tandem but they were moving so quickly, most of the time hidden behind the cars in front, that this was the best of a poor bunch of shots.

Pointsperson in action

What impact do they have on traffic?

To the cynic - nothing short of magic. With them at an intersection, drivers behave.

I've done a straw poll of friends over the last few months, asking them if they'd ever seen a driver, either at the wheel of a taxi, a German luxury car or little red CitiGolf (all predictable offenders at intersections) disobey a pointsman. All except one twentysomething said they had never seen anyone do other than follow the instructions of these brave people who stand in the middle of intersections and wave morning and afternoon rush hour traffic, this way and that, with mesmerising hand motions. You can normally expect a taxi just to go through a red light, and you plan accordingly. But when a pointsman is directing traffic? No, the taxi drivers do what the pointsmen tell them. The twentysomething's story was more of a confession - she said she had once jumped a pointsman and was so thoroughly honked at and dissed by everyone around that she's never done it again.

You can learn more about the pointsmen programme here.

Why do people behave better with pointsmen at an intersection?

Pointsmen have absolutely no authority. So why do they have such a positive impact? I have a couple of lame theories and would really like to hear from experts here.

Lame theory #1

People don't inherently want to kill people standing in the middle of intersections and will exercise more caution simply because there's a human standing where humans normally fear to stand.

Lame theory #2

I'm not sure if this one is truly lame, but I really want to believe it - I'm going with lighter regulation incentivises people to play nicer with each other rather than to break rules which are perceived to be onerous and authoritarian. Perhaps people somehow appreciate that there is another human creating order out of chaos. Perhaps not. Perhaps it's a mix of both lame theories.

I remember reading about a fascinating experiment somewhere in Scandinavia, and unfortunately haven't been able to find the link, in a town where the municipal authority took away all - ALL - the road signage. Stop signs, traffic lights, speed limit signs - anything which would indicate some level of regulation. I think you can guess what the effect was on driver behaviour. Yup, nearly everyone (perhaps not the twentysomethings) behaved better than when they had signs telling them all the rules.

What can Steemians conclude from this loose experiment?

I'll be the first to admit there isn't enough scientific rigour in this little experiment, in fact it's not really an experiment at all, but it tells me that perhaps people do behave more cordially to each other when there's less overt regulation, simply a framework which allows people from all walks (and drives) of life to collaborate for success - in the case of an intersection, getting through without a bumper bashing or hurting a pedestrian, and on Steemit...building this community through cordial interaction? What do you think?

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Hi @kiligirl - I seem to think Theory 1 might be closer to the truth, people don't accidentally run over or kill someone in the middle of the road. Because of the crime and violence in South African prisons lately, I think most people will rather spend a few seconds longer at intersections than actually killing someone at the intersection than risk going to prison.

The fact that the person was working at the intersection with reflected gear on will make you the driver the guilty party if you knock one of them.

I work in a manufacturing plant and pedestrians actually has right of way before vehicles, so this is nothing new to me.

I guess that is one of the problems of some countries.
Where people don't abide by the rules and stipulation of course endangering other people just so they can get to their destination quicker despite the fact without order you create chaos and if anything it may take longer getting to somewhere as a minicab swerves in front of a couple of cars. I wrote about this once in a post where I talked about the problems in Kenya when I went to visit there on my journey of discovering what Africa is like.

At least there are pointsmen. Despite the fact they may not have authority if people see someone in a high visibility jacket they tend to behave as I think we generate this illusion that they are in a place of power and we will face repercussions if anything happens @kiligirl

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You might be onto something there, @arckrai. Selfishness, and balancing out the relative evils - "the impact on my life will be much worse if I kill the pointsman than if I grudgingly obey him".

Hmm interesting "experiment". Too bad you couldn't find the link for it because I'd like to see more information about this. I would've never thought that removing signs could potentially make everyone behave better than before. But I guess it would be risky to experiment this further on a bigger scale.

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Indeed, completely counter-intuitive. It's bugging me that I can't find the link...I remember reading it in an article on LinkedIn about performance management, of all things, written by someone who used to head up HR in some oil company with more than 100,000 staff. Thought I'd saved it in my electronic memory bank, Evernote. Will keep searching and if I find it I'll tag you on the link.

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Okay, I hope you do find this link !

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Found it! http://www.managementexchange.com/hack/end-performance-management-we-know-it. Turns out I was way off on my facts - yes, oil company, no, not >100k people. But the traffic experiment was on the money. And I've now saved the link in Evernote :-)

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Haha, that's great. We all sometimes go way off our facts :D our memory can only take so much. Thanks for the link, I'll check it out.

There are fake cop cars here with dummies in uniform on the highway but people actually fear them because of the tickets, not sure why people slow down for someone with no authority. Driving in your city looks crazy I watched Chappie yesterday

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I see you're from Calgary - I grew up in Montreal (home of the jaywalkers) and freaked out in Calgary when I stepped off the pavement and all the cars stopped. Yikes.

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I lived in Montreal for two years much better town for riding my bike

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It seems to have become much friendlier in the 20 years since I left Montreal for Johannesburg!

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It takes a lot of courage to move somewhere totally different, good job!

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Thanks - it was the right move, but most South Africans think I'm insane for leaving paradise for chaos. Wouldn't have it any other way.

I experience jhb traffic on a daily basis. I still can't believe how taxi's can get away with how they drive and put other people's lives at danger. I have seen these gutsy pointsman stand their ground against the taxis. I am very grateful for their help every morning and afternoon.

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I'm with you, @klyngiant! I read on the Outsurance show that six of these brave people have been knocked down since the programme started. They really do our their lives on the line for us.

By the way, are you on the list of South African Steemians, and will you be coming to Steem Saturday on 9 September?

Welcome back Kiligirl . I see you have been busy driving around, testing the infrastructure. So glad that the pointsmen are well regarded by drivers in your city. It is hard to imagine the chaos when they aren't around. Always enjoy your posts. Hope you are well! You friend Ellie Mae. 🐓🐓

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Thank you, Ellie Mae, glad you enjoyed that little slice of Joburg life. You haven't seen much from me the last few days because besides lots going on with the new company, we're getting ready to go on a big holiday tomorrow - all organised and paid for long before I got retrenched, but you can imagine I'm looking at the money side with caution! Viva internet research and Airbnb...I got really good prices - so hopefully you'll see lots of posts from France over the next week and a half. Looking forward to playing tourist with Tim and his daughter Emma. 😘😘

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Hello my Friend, yes I know you have been very busy with your new roll out. Glad you are taking some time to get away. The best ideas almost always come to me when I am well rested. Have a great time in France. Looking forward to news on both your vacation and project. Your friend. Ellie Mae 🐓🐓

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😂😂😂

So... anyone complaining about Quebec drivers shall be redirected to this text.

This was a fascinating read, actually. It does make one think about rules and regulations and why some regions are not "followers" by nature, as is the case in Joburg, whereas others would not dream of breaking any - well, there are always going to be rule-breakers ;-) - but generally speaking.

Wonder what would happen if they did that "experiment" in Montreal...

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I have to laugh when Joburgers complain about Joburg drivers - they know nothing about the adrenaline rush of trying to get across Rene-Levesque at Peel when the wind is really blowing and the drivers want to be wherever they're going, like, NOW!

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There is that!
Plus, don't we get points for hitting pedestrians? Like they have any right of way... ;-)

Excellent post, very good!

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Thank you, @danieldiaz - and welcome to Steemit!

👍👍👍👍😉

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Might work, worth a go!