Are we like this only?

Understanding (and shaping) India

Breaking traffic lights

When I first moved back to India, I religiously obeyed every traffic light irrespective of the time of night or how desolate the neighbourhood was (Yes, I’m also the sucker who will wait for his turn in a queue). Often I would be the only person waiting at the light and it would give me inner satisfaction to be a law abiding citizen although I would feel a little foolish and not a little annoyed when I watched other cars zoom past me. With time, I started making exceptions like it became okay to jump the light after midnight (even earlier in desolate areas) because the lights should not have been on in the first place.

Even today, I derive great pleasure when the person stuck behind me cannot pass until the light turns green even though he wants too so desperately and I am positively bubbling over with glee if he starts honking in annoyance. And if someone else follows my lead and stops at the red too, I feel great because I’ve been a positive role model.

So what makes someone like me (usually) want to follow the traffic signals and someone else break the light with impunity. The answer is not that I’m a better person because I derive great pleasure when my auto rickshaw breaks the lights. The answer I think is that I have been conditioned because of my upbringing and circumstances to obey the law. To start breaking the law would require that I take the effort to change my mental value system, something that I am too lazy or scared to do.

But what if I was offered a 100 rupees for each traffic light that I broke.  This certainly makes it more interesting because I encounter about 6-8 traffic lights each day that I could break with very little chance of getting caught. And even if I did get caught, the fine is quite low (I was recently fined 120 rupees when I accidentally jumped a red). So if I was being completely rational, I would jump every red light where there wasn’t a high likelihood of getting caught by the traffic cops. There is of course the value I place on my integrity. I probably wouldn’t jump red lights for Rs. 100/light but at 100,000/light… hmmm… I don’t know. Perhaps that is the price of my integrity :).

Consider the following simplistic equation that I think holds true for all of us. A Person will jump a red light if:

(1 – Probability of getting caught) *Value gained for jumping the light + Probability of getting caught * Value of getting caught >  Value gained for not jumping the light

Simply put, this states that a person will jump the light if the total value obtained by jumping the light (after factoring the probability of getting caught and the price to be paid for getting caught) is greater than the total value for not jumping the light. This equation gets more complex when one considers the individual parts. For instance, the value obtained for jumping the light would depend on how much the person values the time saved by jumping the light, whether the person gets any thrill from the act of breaking the law and whether or not the person places any price on the effect this may have on their conscience.

The value for not jumping the light would depend on how much the person values the self satisfaction of doing the right thing  after subtracting the cost of feeling foolish for being the only one doing it. For someone like me when I just arrived in Mumbai, the value for not jumping the light was much higher than the time I would save and the thrill I would get out of jumping the light. In the right circumstances like a medical emergency, the value for jumping the light would be high enough for me to break the light.

Clearly each person will place a different value on their time, their conscience and on the thrill of breaking a red light. And as shown above it will depend on the circumstances. So how can we play with the above equation so that more and more people obey traffic lights.

The first thing one could do is to increase the fine for violating a traffic light. But how high is high enough. If it is very high, there is a greater incentive to try and bribe the cop who catches you. I will talk about corruption in India in a future post.

The second thing that can be done is to associate a social stigma to jumping a red light, much like has been successfully done in Mumbai with smoking in public places and with drinking and driving. This can only happen if we can show how everybody gets affected when one selfish person breaks the traffic light.

The third thing to do is increase the probability of getting caught. This can be done by increasing the number of cops or by installing cameras at traffic lights to catch violators. The former will be expensive for the city while the latter is very tough to enforce in India because license plates are issued by district RTOs and as far as I know there is no central database mapping car license plates to car owner’s driver licenses and addresses.

Additionally, once people figure out where the cops usually stand or the traffic cameras are installed, they will be selectively obedient. Fortunately, for this there is a solution out of the University of Southern California. Prof. Milind Tambe and his students have come up with algorithms that can tell you how to place surveillance resources like policemen (and may be cameras) in a random position each  day so that any observer would not be able to predict their location based on observing the past. Although this may sound far fetched it has already in use in LAX airport, Los Angeles, and I understand that there are plans to install in other airports and ports that face a potential terrorist threat. Can we use similar approaches to position traffic cops around the city?

The final possible direction is to increase the reward for being a law abiding citizen. For instance, you get points for every time your car stops at a red light. The points you gather can be used by you to pay your toll at toll booths , say over the sea link, or even to buy tickets on public transportation like buses and local trains. This can act as an  incentive to always follow traffic lights. Anyone has any ideas on how this can be implemented? Maybe an RFID on each vehicle and an RFID reader on (randomly chosen) traffic lights.

The correct solution is probably a combination of the carrot and the stick but with most “stick” approaches failing, may be its time to use the carrot.


January 18, 2010 Posted by | incentives, india, mumbai, traffic | Leave a comment