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.
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?