The traffic signal

I’ve been born and brought up in Pune (India) and have therefore observed almost all the colors of the city traffic. The rate at which the number of vehicles on the road has multiplied through the years is mind-boggling. Now, blame that on the unplanned growth of the city itself or on the public transport system which is just incapable of keeping up with its rate, the result is crowded roads during peak hours and everybody trying to get ahead of the other at traffic junctions. Hence, traffic signals.

Traffic Signals (Image courtesy: Prism magazine, American Society for Engineering Education)

The general rule with traffic signals is that you stop at the junction line when the lamp goes Red and start when the lamp goes Green, at least that’s what the inventors agreed upon in the 1920’s. The Yellow lamp was added later so that approaching vehicles get a buffer time to stop before the Red lamp comes on. Timers on top of these signals are a relatively new addition and tell the people how many seconds they have before the lamp signal would turn Green again, the idea being that people can shut off their vehicles in the meantime and save fuel. They in turn also let the pedestrians know how much time they have to cross an intersection.

So there’s a traffic signal, so what!

Now there’s a catch – you have to be ‘willing to obey’ what the traffic signal instructs you to do. That’s one exception to the rule which the people of my city, Pune, have taken a liking to. Almost half of the (licensed?) drivers think its below them to obey the signal, so they just ignore it and drive along. The condition is a little different if there is a traffic policeman lurking somewhere behind the signal to catch the ‘inadvertent’ law-breaker. Of course, you can expect people to learn from their mistakes, and they have. Nowadays they bend over and see if they can spot the hiding policeman, and if he’s not there, generally mid-afternoon, they scoot off!

Am I being too harsh to my fellow citizens? Maybe I am. I must say that shame does play some part in their decision on whether or not to stop at the Red signal. I’ve observed that if one person stops, almost 80% of the drivers arriving from behind stop too. Now whether its really down to shame or is it the follow-the-sheep attitude is open to interpretation!

The countdown timer

Now suppose you do stop at the Red signal, and you are in the first row. That’s where the timer comes into the picture. As soon as the countdown goes below 10 seconds you start hearing car-horns from behind you as if it was the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor being replayed and those were the warning sirens! Some drivers in the front row decide to jump the gun, a good 5-6 seconds before the light goes Green. I often wonder why they can’t wait for the last 5 seconds if they have waited for the first 55! Again, its not as if they have the machinery (and the attitude) to beat Michael Schumacher’s F1 championship winning 2004 Ferrari; most of them do get off the line quickly but then accelerate so slowly that you can easily wait the mandatory 5 seconds and still overtake them in under 200 meters!

There’s ‘no’ traffic, lets turn the signals off

I remember watching a news broadcast on TV during the early days of Hurricane Katrina which devastated parts of USA in 2005. They were showing some rain-ravaged parts of New Orleans. It was night time, around 11pm. Most of the residents of the city had either been relocated to other places or had taken shelter in covered domes. There were no vehicles plying on the road except an occasional emergency ambulance. But guess what – the traffic signals still had electrical power! And not just that, they were even working, Red – Green – Yellow – Red!

Cut-to Pune. Almost all the signals here seem to have ‘office working hours’, something like 8am – 1pm and 4pm – 9pm. They never operate 24 x 7. Whether this is decided by the Traffic Department or is it down to the whim of the traffic policeman at the junction is anybody’s guess. I don’t think that there are so few vehicles plying on the road during the afternoon hours or post 9pm that you don’t need traffic signals to manage them. Its ridiculous! All this if, and only if, there is electrical power available at the signal posts. Traffic signals are often conveniently omitted from the list of high-priority places where power should be available at all times. Its just the incentive one needs to continue ignoring the signals.

Over the years I’ve been to other cities in and outside the country but have never seen such apathy shown towards basic traffic control strategies like the one on display here. In a city where the road accident rate is sky-rocketing every year and where traffic-manners seem to be a commodity as rare as a hen’s teeth, shouldn’t the emphasis be given on controlling the mayhem by utilizing (and obeying) the traffic signals more efficiently?

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4 thoughts on “The traffic signal

  1. It’s very true. Sometimes even some people shout at you because you follow the traffic rules. Some (almost all )pedestrians love to walk on the road rather than pedestrian way. Even if you tell them to do not walk on road we have hear some foul language. Zebra crossing is made for pedestrian people but your people like to put vehicle on that so that they can leave asap after getting green signal or till they get the chance to break the singals

    • Yes I totally agree with what you said about the pedestrians. I think the use of Zebra Crossings is taught in every school and yet people tend to forget its importance. And even if its not been taught to you, you can make out its meaning on the road easily. Similarly, people rarely use the traffic overpass or subway because for them “the steps have been built too high”.

      Incidentally the same people will obey all pedestrian traffic rules when they visit a different country because if they don’t then they are very likely to be killed! Then why show apathy towards the same rules here in India!

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