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Chaos and Cooperation on roads

When I drove a car for the first time on a highway in India few years back, I was pleasantly surprised by the informal signs, signals and right-of-way rules used by drivers. Especially interesting was the way drivers co-operated among themselves during overtaking. To overtake a vehicle one had to use the oncoming traffic lane. The driver of the vehicle in the front has the better view of the oncoming traffic. If the vehicle in the front is moving slowly, the driver will signal the vehicle behind to overtake when it is safe by observing the oncoming traffic in the opposite lane. Drivers made creative use of the honks and lights to signal various conditions instead of just relying on the mandated standard traffic hand gestures.

The arrangement was obviously not very perfect but it was not a chaos. What was important is that I could learn the informal rules and signals on the fly without any formal training or tests before hand. All I had to do was to observe the them in practice just once or twice and I was using them right way. This surprised me completely as I had earlier believed that in order to co-operate and co-ordinate people need to learn before hand the signals and rules.

When I got introduced to the concept of spontaneous order I remembered the above incident vividly. Now chaos does not bother me as it used to be earlier. I see in chaos a possibility of not only an order emerging spontaenously but also an importantly ability to continuously adapt to the changing circumstances.

The pre-designed rules and signals acquired by the formal training method lack this very important characteristic. Not only that but pre-designed rules and signals impeded possibility of even simple changes. Since formal traffic rules have been in force in India (and elsewhere) just how many times have they been adopted or modified? Just how many times have road developers radically re-thought and re-designed roads and corresponding traffic signals, signs and rules? Or even thought it?

So, when a traffic engineer embraces chaos on roads, I think it is a welcome change.

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