Island of courtesy

2009-05-12 00:00

SLOW down, pause, halt, go. It’s what traffic does all the time, but generally only when told to, by road signs or traffic cops.

And yet, every day, all day long, there’s a place in Maritzburg where a spontaneous ritual of courtesy takes place. Cars coming from town line up to turn right into Hyslop Road. Cars coming down Howick Road stop to let them through.

It’s a magical little minuet that ebbs and flows depending on the hour, impervious to the cut-throat customs practised elsewhere. Is this a little Hobbit-hole where people live to a moral code lost to the rest of the world; one that might help President Jacob Zuma find the answer to his moral inquiry?

By contrast, up the way at the Chatterton Road circle, it’s the Wild West. There, driving is a dance with death; the roundabout the plaything of a demented child slotting cars into a centrifuge machine­ to see where they pop out. It’s almost impossible to do the right thing. If you follow the rules, you get squeezed out, people­ swear at you and crashes are narrowly avoided. If you don’t, you still get sworn at, and accidents­ feel equally imminent, but chances are you get to cheat the system and beat some law-abiding jerk to the exit. As a rule, though, road rage swirls around and sucks you into a vortex of fear and panic from which you’re released only when you get spat out the other end.

Why is it that the traffic coming down Howick Road will pause, without compulsion, to let through the oncoming stream? Is the feng shui of the spot just right, its geographic aesthetic an invitation to civil behaviour? Is it the effect­ of the bend on speed? Is everything­ just right — the speed, the sweep of the bend, familiarity with the road and local habits — to allow people to click into doing the right thing? Common sense suggests that positive collective action doesn’t just combust for no reason, that people don’t do the right thing for no gain. Or, conversely­, they don’t act like idiots­ just because.

Because you can be sure that the same person who’s paused obligingly to make others’ lives easier will a short while later turn into a savage down the road.

Traffic circles are efficient for traffic control, and fewer accidents tend to happen at them than at intersections, albeit at the cost of high blood pressure. So why does Chatterton Road feel so chaotic­? Is it a magnet for maniacs­? Is there a flaw in its design? Is it too tight to regulate the flow properly? It can’t help that it has to handle every type of vehicle­, from heavy-duty trucks to skedonks to delivery vans and taxis, each needing a different rhythm. Is it just one of those places­ where too many factors weigh against the possibility of civil conduct?

The Hyslop Road ritual is a custom­ so embedded in the fabric of our city that it is simply adopted by all who come across it. It’s logical­, it’s obvious, it’s possible and it works. Its weakness is that there’s no back-up plan. If drivers suddenly decide, in their numbers, to plough on without regard for the needs of the oncoming traffic­, then that’s the end of that. Hello road rage.

Of course the entire traffic grid couldn’t rely on courtesy and common sense to function. The measure­ of order it imposes makes it possible to get from A to B with relative predictability. What that confers on the indivi-dual driver is a sense of control that engenders a generosity of spirit, and the ability to make good choices that make social co-operation possible.

The rage that one feels on the highway, or at the Chatterton Road circle, is a rage at randomness, unpredictability and actual danger, where the grid that we rely­ on to direct our actions has been distorted through neglect and opportunism.

“Where so much is uncertain,’’ wrote the American writer Walter Lippmann, “where so many actions­ have to be carried out on guesses, the demand upon the reserves of mere decency is enormous­, and it is necessary to live as if goodwill would work.”

When Zuma calls for a debate on morals, one senses that blame is being dumped on us for somehow having lost our compass. It would help if we could work off a decent map that doesn’t mark a different north and south every time someone doesn’t like the direction­ in which the spoils of power flow.

That, a good example, and a bit of give and take, will by and large allow people to do the right thing.

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