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Monday, May 09, 2005

Gentleman... start your engines!

In the US, traffic lights employ the following pattern:

Red... green... yellow... red...

Having grown up with this system, I never gave much thought to whether or not it made sense... or whether it could be improved upon. 

Here in Israel they have added the following convention:

Red... combination yellow & red... green... flashing green... yellow... red...

If you think about it for a moment, the Israeli traffic light cycle makes perfect sense on several levels.

When sitting at a red light it is helpful to have a moment's warning when the light is about to turn green.  The combination yellow/red serves this purpose admirably, and ensures that the first cars in line don't waste precious seconds taking their feet off the brakes and getting their car moving (thus causing the 'accordion effect' as traffic moves forward in a staggered line). 

Also, having this short warning helps avoid the phenomenon of people using ESP and other less-than accurate forms of prophesy to anticipate the exact moment that the light will change to green.  Just as in a drag race... everyone knows precisely when to stomp on the accelerator pedal, fair-and-square.

The other place where the Israeli traffic light sequence makes sense is at the end of the cycle. 

Just before the light is about to turn yellow, there are first a few seconds of flashing green.  This double warning before a red light helps eliminate that terrible moment of indecision when one has to figure out whether to try to make it through the intersection or not.  I have yet to meet an Israeli who felt he/she couldn't make it through in time.   The addition of the flashing green seems to have helped dampen this optimistic spirit somewhat.

Another innovation that has taken some of the indecision out of intersections... those without traffic lights, that is... is the relatively recent introduction of the round-about. 

It has been obvious for decades that a four-way stop is incomprehensible to most Israelis.  A four-way stop requires that everyone at the intersection employ a small degree of etiquette and tacitly agree upon who arrived at the intersection first... and who has precedence to proceed. 

There are no words in Hebrew for 'ettiquette' and 'tacit' (at least none in current use).

Every single Israeli driver who ever approached a four-way stop arrived there first.

Moreover, every Israeli who ever approached a four-way stop is the only driver to have ever arrived at the intersection!  If you question them under truth serum, torture or threat of death, every single one of them will insist that they clearly had the right-of-way. 

It's a cultural thing.

So, to deal with the over-developed Israeli sense of entitlement, the round-about was imported from Europe and points north.

The basic rule of the round-about is that the car in the round-about has the right of way over any car waiting to enter.  This arrangement also requires a small degree of awareness that other cars exist... but the fact that one car is in motion and the other is not lends a certain, shall we say 'significance' to the decision of whether to proceed or not. 

Israelis may be somewhat self-absorbed on the road, but they are acutely aware of how the laws of physics will effect their mostly-stationary car if they creep out into the path of another vehicle already very much in motion.

Now, if only we could come up with a few equally effective innovations to deal with the the Israeli fascination with passing.

I've written a few times about how Israelis will do nearly anything to avoid being a 'freier' (sucker). 

One of the ways this manifests itself is through the need to constantly move forward in traffic.  The person at the front of the line is the clear winner... and everyone else is a freier! 

If you leave a safe distance between yourself and the car in front of you, the car behind you will take this as an invitation/challenge to pass you. 

I was talking about this phenomenon with a coworker and he explained that most Israelis can't comprehend the concept of defensive driving.  To their way of thinking if you leave a safe buffer zone in front of your car, someone will inevitably pass.  If you slow down to create a new buffer zone someone else will also pass.  Before you know it you will be stopped... or even traveling in reverse!  You'd never get anywhere!!!

It's hard to argue with that kind of logic!

For a few years now there has been an organization called Ohr Yarok (Green Light) whose sole mission is to change the driving culture in Israel.  I wish them luck... because in my limited experience the only innovations that have any chance of success in changing any Israeli's driving habits are those (such as the traffic lights and round-abouts) that are difficult or impossible to ignore/bypass.

Anyway... I'm off to work now.

Gentlemen (and ladies), start your engines!


Cross-Posted on Israelity

Posted by David Bogner on May 9, 2005 | Permalink


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I remember the old lights in Brooklyn back in the 1950's and early 1960's - they had red and green only (no yellow) - in lieu of yellow, you had the red and green lights on together.

But the current Israeli system makes a lot of sense, as it gives you a "heads up" when you're approaching a "stale" green light.

Posted by: Elisson | May 9, 2005 5:01:47 PM

"There are no words in Hebrew for 'ettiquette' and 'tacit' (at least none in current use)."

That explains a lot ;o)

Posted by: V, Ko | May 9, 2005 5:29:57 PM

Elisson... There are still one or two of those left in Far Rockaway (on that long stretch of road under the elevated subway tracks). By the way, I love the term 'stale green light'! Did you coin that? It is the perfect way to describe a green light that is due to change! :-)

V.Ko... Actually, I'm sure there are, but they aren't employed very often. :-)

Posted by: David | May 9, 2005 9:50:36 PM

There was an advert in the paper last shabbat soliciting traffic safety suggestions on behalf of the transportation ministry. They gave a fax number and an email address.

If I find the advert here is what I'm gonna suggest.

Accept complaints about reckless driving from private citizens. Set up some kind of a webstite enabling people to report time, location, license plate number and description of the infratction. This way people will get reported (by me) for really dangerous things like tailgating and passing where its not safe to do so. Currently nobody ever gets pulled over for those things even though they are so obviously the most dangerous things people do on the road! They ONLY get pulled over for talking on a cellphone while driving (even in a parking lot) land having more passengers than seatbelts!

Posted by: Andy | May 9, 2005 10:05:12 PM

Andy... Oh yeah, 'cause that's just what this country needs... a bunch of already iffy drivers trying to jot down license plate numbers at 110 Kph! :-)

My suggestion would be to allow drivers to carry paintball guns. Whenever somone does something stupid you just pop them. That way, when you see a car covered in paint splotches, you know to avoid them... they're the dangerous ones!

Posted by: David | May 9, 2005 10:10:00 PM

Cool post! Explains a lot indeed...
Just as an update the 878 in Far Rockaway/Lawrence
now has new crossing lights with a countodwn
from 25 and down. It would also give the drivers a sense of when the light will indeed turn green.

Posted by: shloimy | May 9, 2005 11:12:04 PM

yeah, that does make sense. wow. the one thing in israeli drive that does...fine two...

Posted by: Tonny | May 10, 2005 6:56:59 AM

Shloimy... I can hear the engines revving from here! :-)

Tonny... Well, there are probably several more... but that'll be a post for another day.

Posted by: David | May 10, 2005 11:37:29 AM

I thought that the idea of the red and yellow together was to tell any driver behind the first car at the light when to start honking his horn...

Posted by: gil ben mori | May 10, 2005 6:48:54 PM

Gili... Very funny (and also true).

Posted by: David | May 10, 2005 7:36:08 PM

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