This analogy, which I heard long ago while living in Europe, is a very revealing exercise. The story goes as follows:

“A Taxi Driver is driving his taxi down a city road at 2:30AM. The traffic light at the intersection he is approaching is red.  As he approaches the intersection, he brings the taxi to a stop just before the white limit line. He then looks around in all directions and sees no cars or pedestrians anywhere on the road.  So he presses the gas pedal and continues through the intersection while the light is still red.”  .. and that’s the end of the story.

And the point of the story?  Well, that will become obvious later. The basic idea of the story is to tell it, provide no further information, then just OBSERVE the listener’s reaction to it.

The reactions that people give are amusing, humorous, sometimes insightful, and sometimes downright scary. I’ve heard some people ask if the driver also was checking for animals in the intersection, as well as pedestrians and cars. Others have wondered why a full-time professional driver would even stop for a red light that early in the morning (most people answering this way are from big cities). And there are people who get offended that the taxi driver ran a red light–regardless of what was or wasn’t in the intersection.

And regardless of what the listener’s reaction is, I always ask a simple follow-up question: “If you were in that situation (stopped at a red light, with no other car or pedestrian around), what would you do?” And I have heard some very interesting and strange answers to this over the years. And I like to ask everyone “Why is that?” to allow them to explain their thinking.  I’m happy when a person can rationalize their answer (regardless of whether I agree), and I never like it when I get the dreaded answer of “I don’t know.”

Why do I like this story and enjoy sharing it with people from time to time? It (hopefully) forces a person to think about a scenario that, taken only at face value, is illegal: crossing into an intersection while the traffic light for that direction is red. The paradigm applied here is the authority of the law which applies to the traffic light.

But the French Taxi Driver used the context of the situation: there was nothing at the intersection to stop for. The paradigm applied here is the real purpose of the traffic light: negotiation. As any city planner can tell you, traffic lights are avoided because of their expense. Most non-highway roads use less expensive solutions (e.g. stop signs and yield signs) which assume that a certain amount of cooperation occurs between drivers. They also use an approach best described as “go when its your turn.”  Once a certain frequency of major accidents and even fatalities occur within a designated time frame, the cooperative approaches are deemed no longer effective, and the cost of the traffic light can be justified.

Traffic lights shift negotiation of right-of-way from the cooperative-approach of stop signs and yield signs to a time-sharing approach. Because of the declarative nature of a traffic light, people tend to follow its signaling as instructive. It’s very common when training young drivers to have to remind them, that even though the light is green, it’s still the safe thing to check all directions for any cars entering the intersection before pulling into it. But that behavior is automatic with a stop sign, due to the cooperative nature of the stop sign.

The core reason for the traffic light being installed (time-sharing) occurs far less late at night, since the vast majority of travelers are off the road at that time. There have to be multiple cars wanting to use the intersection for the traffic light to really fulfill its intended purpose.

This may sound like nit-picking, or trying to stretch or rationalize the law, but it is more important than you might first think.  Back when I was in Berlin in 1987, not long after I first heard the French Taxi Driver analogy, my wife and I personally witnessed something very similar to the analogy.  It was 1:30AM in Berlin, and we were approaching an intersection on foot.  There was another man walking towards the intersection just ahead of us.  And at the intersection already, where the traffic light was red, was an older woman standing at the corner waiting to cross.

When the man ahead of us got to the intersection where the woman was standing at the red light, he quickly looked around to see if it was safe to cross, and then proceeded to cross the street.  The older woman then did something that astonished me. She raised her fist in the air, and began cursing out the man at the top of her lungs for going into the intersection before the light turned green.  And all this cursing ended with a very ugly statement from her: “.. if Hitler was still in power, you’d be paying for this!”  I was just stunned when I heard that. Fortunately, the man who crossed the intersection just ignored her and never looked back. And later, my wife explained to me that this was a very common reaction from older people who were raised in the Hitler youth or in school during the Nazi era. They were taught always to obey the law and never question authority–to an extreme.

Waiting at the red light for the light to turn green may sound like the good and decent thing for a citizen pedestrian to do. In this case, the woman appeared to be just pointing that out to the man that he was breaking the law, but that was not what was happening.  What was really happening was easily observed when the it was daytime instead of nighttime.

During the day, it was very common to see the same old people standing at an intersection waiting for the red light to turn green.  But this time when the light turned green, they just stepped out into the intersection–even if there were still cars in the intersection trying to clear out it. Sadly, it was a common occurrence for a number of these poor old people to be injured or killed because they never took their eyes of the traffic light, their absolute authority, and blindly followed its instructions.

In hindsight, it is easy to understand why the Allies agreed that Germany had to be occupied for at least 50 years at the end of World War II: there was a generation of this thinking and behavior that needed to die off for Germany to reinvent itself.

So my opinion is, how we behave at a red light at 1:30 AM when there is no traffic shows a lot about our thought processes at a given time in our life.  If we choose to wait for the green light, that can be perfectly in context. Maybe we don’t feel comfortable with the intersection (an unfamiliar location for us), or the street lighting may not make us feel comfortable enough to declare the street hazard-free and proceed through the intersection.  Maybe the person is a new driver and is still not comfortable with the controls of the car or the behavior patterns of other drivers.  All of these are perfect reasons for not to risk proceeding through the intersection until you have the green light.

But if we are familiar with the intersection (important point: the taxi driver probably drives though the intersection a lot and is very familiar with it), and if we have been driving for a while, we get to a position where our ability to make a decision on right-of-way and safety easily supersedes the traffic light’s dumb timing sequence.  And at that point in our mental maturity, it becomes counterproductive (in fact, almost bordering on mental slavery) to allow the traffic light to dictate our actions when we know better.

That may sound wrong, but most states across the United States already allow a right turn on red with the same process: come to a complete stop, proceed when it is safe. And that is during all hours of the day. The right turn simply has less risk than going straight or making a left turn.

Germany was an extreme case, which I mentioned only because of personal experience with it.  However, the red light traffic cameras we are installing today are actually encouraging a pattern of thinking similar to what got those older Germans into danger: never being allowed to question authority.  I have a separate post on why that is here.

So what is the point of the story? It is simple. At what point does automation and authority stop serving you, and you begin serving the authority and, especially, the automation? The lesson of this story applies much more broadly than to just traffic lights. It applies to all aspects of our lives where we have rules.

So the next time you are stuck at a red light at 1:30AM, there is no traffic around for blocks and it makes no sense to wait, think about this article.  I will tell you that if you decide to proceed through the intersection, you do risk getting a moving violation from a police officer (even if what you did was rational, but the police officer was just not in the mood to be rational).  You also risk more if there is a vehicle you do not see and you get hit.  And while I have proceeded through the intersection many times in the past, I don’t always do it.  I only do it when I am absolutely sure it is safe, just like making a right turn on red.

I have been pulled over once for proceeding through.  I explained to the officer that I did come to a full stop as required (which I was sure he witnessed), and only proceeded when I was sure that there was zero traffic, so there was no reason to wait for a green light.  After checking my documentation, he returned it to me with a simple “Thank you. Drive safely, and be careful when you pull out.” .. which was somewhat humorous in context since there still were no other cars on the road around us.

So how do I explain that reasoning to a still picture camera? Obviously, I can’t. And if enough of them send me fines for violating a red light, no matter what was going on in context, my free thought is discouraged and punished. I am being told to just blindly follow the instructions of the traffic light as if it were my master–not a negotiator.

In a society that prides itself on free thinking, that’s a really bad thing.