In Good Faith: The morality of jumping lights

Often, traffic violation has little to do with being in a hurry. It’s about the opportunity to leave the fellow traveller behind.

Written by Vijay Tankha | Updated: November 20, 2017 9:27:10 am
traffic rules, traffic rules violation, traffic police, odd-even number plates, jumping trafic lights, jumbing trafic signal fine, raod safetyc Traffic rules are entirely regulative. It doesn’t matter if you drive on the left or right, as long as you drive on a particular side. (source: Thinkstock images)

There are obvious and central differences between thinking of morality and in the way that we think of traffic. While both spheres, bounded by rules and supported by sanctions, aim at a smooth and conflict- free interaction between individuals, there is an essential asymmetry between them: Traffic rules are entirely regulative. It doesn’t matter if you drive on the left or right, as long as you drive on a particular side. Like the introduction of odd-even number plates, these rules can be arbitrarily altered or suddenly suspended without our being able to complain that the air has been taken out of civil liberty.

Moral and juridical rules, however, are constitutive of the way in which we live and interact with each other. They cannot, we hope, be arbitrarily replaced by another set, in which, say, murder is okay but marriage is not. Traffic restrictions lie on the surface of human interaction, where men and machines, and men in and as machines, are regulated and must regulate themselves. But while morality underpins these rules, it also frames them: How we behave on the road is an image of ourselves. How we drive is how we are driven. Much needs to be done to understand why there are so many routine violations of traffic rules. Is it because there are not enough policemen or not enough decent men on our roads?

Take traffic lights as a paradigm case. In Delhi, jumping lights is a feature of daily life. It is, in principle, dangerous and very often fatal for either the violator or the innocent passerby or both. If everyone crashed lights, there would be chaos. Comparably, if everyone always told lies, there would be no difference between lying and truth-telling, making it impossible to lie. But that’s not quite right: There are numerous occasions when everyone has to crash lights for the simple reason that they don’t work. There is a parallel lesson for the moral violation of lying: With increasing lying, the difference between truth and falsity is not abandoned, as Kant thought, but actually sharpened. If fake news makes all non-authoritative news suspect, new standards of authority must be devised. Even the absence of news or its manipulation flags itself: We do not abandon truth, but look more carefully for it.

Non-functioning traffic lights force people to take unilateral decisions when co-operative action is called for. This has the effect, not legally but psychologically speaking, of legitimising jumping lights when they do work. They say that killers become inured after the first (few) kills. Crashing lights also alters our character. We infect each other until the malady becomes an epidemic. Soon, we think little of rule-breaking, especially when no one is looking. Like school children singing patriotically and piously as their teachers look on, motorbikes and cars line up obediently at crossings only when some competent authority is present. Even the presence of a patrol car will not deter experienced jumpers for only traffic police can issue chalans. The violator, like any repeat offender, is aware of what he is doing. For, crashing lights is perfectly rational.

There are broadly two concepts of rationality at work: Reason is either a faculty which, having a (rational) goal as its aim, chooses the best available means to achieve it. Or it is merely a faculty which calculates the means to any given end. For most people, practical reason is a means to achieve immediate goals, whatever they may be. In the case of the light-crasher, the goal is simply getting across quickly.

Slowing down the speedster includes strategies like timers on lights which show the duration of the impending wait (in the old days when petrol was cheaper than it is now, but salaries lower, drivers used to switch off their engines for the minute or two that they had to wait). Subliminal messages like “relax” appear red-faced on some signals, playing both good and bad cop. No study has been done to determine how effective such psychological policing is. In any case, at traffic lights you only have to get the first few vehicles to stop to stop the others per force.

But the assumption that light-crashers are in a hurry is questionable: It is not the real reason for jumping lights (fallacy of pro causa non causa). Those who jump lights appear to be in a hurry; but are in no more haste than everybody else, and not more likely to get anywhere faster. There may, in fact, be no one reason why people jump lights, just as there is no one reason why people vote for a particular candidate or a particular party; they may do so for reasons often unknown to themselves.

Here, it is not the hurry to get across that best describes such misconduct, but the opportunity to leave fellow travellers behind. This is what lures the criminal to make his dash. His motive is simply to get the better of others; it’s a competitive play which can explain other forms of non- egalitarian behaviour; a kind of cheating, short-changing someone else, not because it makes you richer, but because it enables you to “steal a march on them’’. Most likely, this fills out a sense of self-worth that may be otherwise missing; accomplishing something that is potentially dangerous. It is this that often makes the light rider throw caution to the winds, he simply wants to seize the day.

No arguments will be effective against such behaviour, least of all the one from self interest: You might kill or be killed or injured. The future isn’t here or now after all. Suicidal behaviour is not the privilege of fanatics, nor fun only for fundamentalists. So back to the good old carrots and sticks. Carrots being in short supply, the stick alone remains. As Lord Krishna said “dando damyatam asmi”. If there is one area where no one could rightly complain of police action, it is the one area where the police seem least active. Which makes one wonder if law and order are really a priority.

The writer taught philosophy in Delhi University.

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