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I try to clear my head of things that bother me. Sometimes, mint tea helps; other times, I need to take a walk; again, other times, I need to burn up some serious energy or sing certain songs. Or, I write about the problems.

I’ve been bothered for a while by a set of claims about Jamaicans that I cannot see substantiated. One of these is that Jamaicans are undisciplined.

I’ve been to a lot of different countries and seen how people operate in daily life, sometimes during extreme economic or social conditions. So, I have been in countries that have had economic catastrophes, mainly when inflation is very fast and/or their currencies have gone into some kind of downward spiral. (Sorry, Jamaica. For all that the decline of the J$ has been constant over the past 16 months, it’s not in a spiral.) People start to panic, hoarding goods, trying buy goods as fast as they can before the value of money plummets. With that, normal behaviour gets frenetic. I once stayed in a hotel, where the currency was falling so fast the prices changed within the day. So, I left for meetings in the morning, and came back to find a new set of tariffs. That’s really scary.

I have been in countries going through social and political upheaval, such as civil war or attempts to overthrow governments by coups. In such circumstances, people behave in a range of undisciplined ways. For example, they loot shops, burn tyres in roads, stop people in vehicles and assault them, especially if they are part of the ‘opposition’. There is general mayhem, and with it the economy stops functioning because traders and producers get scared; consumers, too.

Jamaica is not in the league of those countries, for which I breathe a huge sigh of relief. Yes, we have bands of crazy criminals. Some of these are murderous. Some of them are gougers of money from our pockets by some sort of scamming operation. We see footage of teenagers doing what teenagers have been doing all the years I’ve lived and I’m nearly three score years. Now, the misdeeds are on film and circulated faster than you can pull up your knickers. We have people doing ‘extraordinary’ things that are in fact quite ordinary, wherever you have rules loosely applied. Yet, you have something else. You have order where disorder would be much easier.

Kingston has bus lanes, mainly along the highway going east-west. Along stretches of that highway are bus lanes in both directions. Whenever I drive along Washington Boulevard, no matter what the traffic conditions, or time of day, people are not usually driving in those lanes.

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Bus lane to the left; left unused by ‘undisciplined’ Jamaican drivers

Why? Good question. There are no police monitoring them, as far as I have ever seen. There are no special barriers to stop vehicles other than buses crossing into the bus lanes. Jamaican drivers obey the regulation–and it’s not clear what the regulation is. The signs say ‘bus lane’, with no stated hours or application. So, Jamaicans do not drive in those lanes ever. During the long Easter weekend, I drove on that road in both directions, at dawn leaving town and at dusk on Sunday coming back. The lanes were empty. I’ve seen then during heavier traffic flows–the same, In London, or elsewhere, the lanes are really for peak hours to help traffic move workers and other commuters faster. Off-peak, the lanes are often open for other users. As I wrote, I don’t know what rules apply to the Kingston bus lanes.

Undisciplined people do not abide by vague strictures. Maybe, the trick has been to not specify a rule so people do know what to break. A psychologist can help me there.

The corollary to that bus lane behaviour is also associated with road use on an extension of the Boulevard heading west. JUTC has had an experiment running for about six months now, whereby it takes one lane of the westbound side and cordons it off for its buses coming east from the outskirts of Spanish Town.

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Bus lane experiment on Mandela Highway: no attempt to circumvent by ‘undisciplined’ Jamaicans

The restrictions last from 6-8am on weekdays, more or less. That is monitored by some police and service personnel. It’s dangerous, because traffic going the right way in the wrong lane could lead to a major traffic accident. So, the incentive to try to use that bus lane to leave town is limited, but it’s still there. Why? There are long, clear stretches where it’s easy to see that no buses are coming. As traffic builds in the single lane leaving town, it’s tempting to just nip into the bus lane even for a little while to zip past the slow line of cars. Jamaicans love to do that ‘nipping and tucking in’ on most single lane roads. But, they just wait patiently on Mandela Highway. Even when I see the occasional official vehicle going west in the restricted lane it’s escorted by a police vehicle, and no one tries to follow, even at a distance, even though it’s unlikely that the police escort would stop to bother with this transgression.

Undisciplined people do not act this way.

The Jamaican driver is an interesting study in general good behaviour, if you take away the rampant nonsense of some taxi and minibus drivers–which is not surprising given how they make their living. Their behaviour is typical of many taxi drivers or drivers of private buses competing with public bus companies. There’s a long and violent history of such bad behaviour when road competition intensifies–even ‘bus wars‘, in some cases–as a result of dergegulation. Britain had famous cases in the 1920s, before road licensing restrictions were introduced, and again in the late 1980s-though mid-1990s, when deregulation was introduced. Unscrupulous behaviour was rampant, and some people got jail time for their misdeeds. It’s a money business with tight margins and ‘turf’ to protect.

The Jamaican driver (even in busy Kingston) is often relatively considerate when it comes to allowing traffic to flow from side roads onto a main road, and at lights when turns are desired, even if no priority is offered to the turning vehicles with a dedicated arrow. Trust me. I’ve seen how drivers in the US would do all in their power to stop people get from side roads. They would block junctions, too, so that turns are impossible. Blocking junctions was such a problem in the UK that they had to create ‘the box junction‘. When they were first introduced in the late-1960s, they were aimed to stop gridlock from blocked junctions. Drivers were not supposed to enter unless they could cross freely. People got to understand the system. But, still problems persisted, and the police have found it worthwhile setting up cameras to catch transgressors and make a pretty penny from that. In Jamaica, we can still get by with a policeman directing traffic to stop most being blocked. We get little bottlenecks, but not as much as you’d expect from a bunch of people who cannot abide rules.

box junction London

So, I say, “Wheel and come again”. Something else goes on in Jamaica and I would not call what I see undisciplined. Find me another term with which to work.

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