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Our traffic signals: there’s always a temptation to cut corners

My nephew who was visiting from US had never been to Pakistan before. After a few days of being driven around he made an observation I cannot forget. He said: “Uncle Zia I think traffic signals in Karachi are merely a suggestion”. This was such a profound statement that for a while I was groping for words. I looked around and realized that what he was saying is actually true and the drivers of cars, motorcycles, buses, vans and rickshaws did not treat our traffic lights as clear instructions to do a certain action but only as a suggestion which is mostly ignored. It is bad enough that vehicle drivers ignore these traffic lights but even worse when the traffic police duty bound to stop such violations not only turn a blind eye but actually wave through traffic indulging in such law-breaking activities. Let us face it. Traffic lights no longer serve the purpose for which they were installed and are merely a burden on taxpayers.

While many drivers go through red at a traffic signal out of sheer contempt for the law and the knowledge that there will be no retribution there are those that violate a signal because there is something fundamentally wrong with the signal and though it appears there is a violation but actually the motorist is using common sense. This can be seen in abundance on various streets in DHA. Take the intersection of 26th Street and Mujahid. Some time ago Mujahid was declared one-way going towards Shaheen so if you are approaching Mujahid from the direction of Shamsheer you cannot hang a right but the traffic signal still gives you a few seconds to make that turn. Motorists who know ignore the signal as traffic anyway is standstill around that signal. This happens in many other places as well as at the intersection of Shamsheer and 26th Street. Few years ago when these new restrictions were imposed I approached a burly sergeant on a motorbike and pointed out that the traffic signals need to be reprogrammed to which he agreed but sadly no action was taken.

So when did it all start? The world’s first traffic light was installed at Parliament Square in London. The system was composed of two mobile signs attached to pivoting arms that were manipulated by a lever. The post was topped with a gas-lit semaphore to ensure visibility. But it was short-lived. Less than two months later, the traffic light exploded, killing the police officer who worked the signs. It was after 46 years when use of electricity became widespread that the first dual-colored traffic light, using this new energy, was installed in Cleveland in the United States. Detroit and New York added yellow between red and green in 1920. The traffic lights that we now know were born and became the norm throughout the world.

When did Karachi get its first traffic lights? For those of you who don’t know the first traffic signal in Karachi was installed at what is presently known as the Capri Cinema roundabout. This was in the sixties. It was quite a novelty for the people of Karachi. We as children would walk all the way from our house in Jacob Lines to the corner of what is now M. A. Jinnah Road to just stand and watch the colours change from red to green and yellow. Much has changed since the first signals were installed. Now we have the latest models that actually keep the drivers of various vehicles informed of the seconds left to either cross the intersection or to stop. Unfortunately, most people do not respect this and zoom through without stopping even if the indication is red. In a way the traffic police that maintains these signals is also to blame. Red lights for long periods on nearly deserted roads induce people to violation. This can be seen early morning on Ittehad Avenue in DHA. Long duration of a series of red lights on a nearly deserted road incite people to ignore red lights for saving time and even their possessions, given the law-and-order situation in the city. For an already polluted city like Karachi traffic signals can add to the pollution. A World Economic Forum study found that signalized junctions are linked to higher rates of localized air pollution. Drivers accelerate and stop frequently at lights and as such peak particle concentration can be around 29 times higher than during free-flow conditions. The WEF recommended that traffic authorities synchronize traffic signals, consider alternative traffic management systems, and consider placing traffic lights away from residential areas, schools, and hospitals.

Traffic signs in Karachi not only serve to provide direction to drivers but are a melting pot of sorts. Each intersection is buzzing with activity. As soon as you stop you face an invasion of beggars, flower sellers, notebook and pen vendors, little girls that want to wash your front screen with dirty water and overused brushes and if you are ready for the ultimate adventure some young man with a firearm who will ensure that you buy a new mobile.

Zia Ul Islam Zuberi, "Our traffic signals: there’s always a temptation to cut corners," Business recorder. 2022-12-24.
Keywords: Social sciences , Social issues , Economic forum , Traffic issues , Traffic lights , Parliament square , Pakistan , Karachi , DHA , US

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