The benefit of social conventions

25 January 2022
Harare traffic jam

What happens when the lights go out in Harare...

I was stuck in a rush hour traffic jam in Harare, Zimbabwe. The reason? The busy intersection of Samora Machel Avenue and Enterprise Road had traffic lights out of action. As a result, every motorist simply piled into the intersection hugging the bumper of the vehicle in front. Add to this two massive tractor trailers trying to turn across the intersection at the same time… 

The logjam meant we sat there for 30 minutes until a single metro police officer pitched up, took charge of the situation, and traffic flowed again. 

We have traffic lights out of action in Johannesburg all the time, but Africa’s financial capital does not have that problem.

This is because in Johannesburg, if a traffic light is out of action, everyone treats the intersection as a 4-way stop street. People stop, wait their turn, and cross the intersection on a first in first out basis.

There are two important reasons why this works in Johannesburg and not in Harare:

  1. Everyone in Johannesburg is aware of the convention, and
  2. The majority of people respect the convention.

The first is easy to teach; the second, far more difficult.

If we get these right, society is better as a result.

If not, we have to wait for an authority figure to get us to behave.


Harare traffic

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