Thursday, March 19, 2015

Traffic Reflects the Nation

In my last post about my travels in Vietnam, I mentioned the traffic in this populous Southeast Asian nation. It got me thinking further on the subject and I believe that the behaviour of motorists, and of governments' attempts to control them, provides a useful reflection of the nature of a society.

The Vietnamese, as I mentioned, have achieved a state of almost perfect anarchy on their roads. They have few traffic lights and those they do have are largely ignored. Drivers also ignore the centre line, using the opposing lane whenever they feel the need to pass another vehicle, irrespective of whether there is on-coming traffic and assuming the vehicles on the other side of the road will move onto the shoulder to avoid a head-on collision. Motorbikes often travel completely on the wrong side of the road, edging along on the far edge past the opposing traffic. The sidewalks are not the exclusive preserve of pedestrians, with motorbikes and scooters also using the footpath to avoid the traffic on the road. And yet, somehow it all works. In two weeks in Vietnam we have yet to see a serious accident. In fact, we've see only a couple of minor scrapes, seemingly with no injuries. The traffic is constantly on the move, unhindered by the innumerable traffic lights that plague all Western cities, and there is more courtesy than I've ever seen on the roads back home.

Where are the traffic police in all this mayhem, you might ask? Well, their presence is obvious and they appear to be as numerous as in most Western nations, and in one respect at least, they mirror the main role of our own traffic police - collecting money. They only difference is, in Vietnam the money comes from instant fines collected as cash and it goes straight into the pockets of the policemen themselves. The locals joke (bitterly) about the typical policeman who has grown fat in a country of thin people.

In New Zealand our policemen are, for the most part, uncorrupt. But they are incredibly paternalistic and petty. Last Christmas, they attempted to introduce a zero tolerance for speeding, writing tickets for as little as one kilometre per hour over the speed limit. The normally submissive New Zealand public, which has sat idly by while the police have introduced thousands of speed cameras and breath-testing blitzes that stop ten of thousands of drivers with no reasonable cause (and usually with negligible results), finally stood up and objected to this increasing criminalisation of innocent people. Of course it is a nonsense to have less than a one km/hour speed tolerance as most motor vehicle speedometers are only accurate to within 2 - 3 km/hour. Eventually the police leadership backed down and restored a 5 km/hour tolerance.

It was great to see the New Zealand public showing the authorities we aren't as craven as we've appeared to be in recent years. We pride ourselves on having a can-do, individualistic streak, but that aspect of our character is all too rare these days. We have watched our civil liberties be eroded to the point where the government interferes in so many petty and unnecessary ways, not trusting us to take personal responsibility to go about any part of our business and personal lives freely and safely.

Aside from the corrupt policemen, Vietnam's traffic is an example of how freely-interacting individuals can form self-organising systems - in other words, it's like capitalism applied to the roads. Like the economy, the more governments try to impose order and controls, the worse the roading system seems to work. Let people organise themselves and you get optimal perforance and outcomes. Strange but true.


Judge Holden said...

"Let people organise themselves and you get optimal perforance (sic) and outcomes."

If you call optimal a death toll six times ours then, yep. The price of freedumb. I think you've left a t out of your by-line.

paul scott said...

In Thailand the City driving is also chaotic but non aggressive. Most of the road deaths there are motorbikes.
Motor bike drivers there are all insane.
However on the highways and connecting roads things change. Mostly not too bad on the one way highways , but in connecting roads dual lanes,You will see 10 and 12 wheelers coming round the corner, over the yellow line and you have two seconds left. They take out 25,000 people each year on the roads, about 4 times our rate. Main advantage they have is single lane highways. Main disadvantage Thai brains . Ugly post by Judge Holden