Urban myths: the undisciplined Jamaican

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.

Author: Dennis G Jones (aka 'The Grasshopper')

Retired International Monetary Fund economist. My blog is for organizing my ideas and thoughts about a range of topics. I was born in Jamaica, but spent 30 years being educated, living, and working in the UK. I lived in the USA for two decades, and worked and travelled abroad, extensively, throughout my careers and for pleasure. My views have a wide international perspective. Father of 3 girls. Also, married to an economist. :)

9 thoughts on “Urban myths: the undisciplined Jamaican”

  1. I’ll be interested in any reactions, and differing views, but it’s something I’ve observed over 9 months.

    Even in rush hour, what I’ve seen in Kingston is not general indiscipline. For instance, motorists abide by stop lights, even when they see these are not flow-controlled, ie, wait their turn. You don’t see people driving the wrong way down roads, etc. It’s easy to break rules & not enough police are there to monitor it.

    You see other things, for sure. Carelessness (by drivers and pedestrians)–one reason for traffic accidents that are often avoidable.

    You see ingrained habits that come from toleration of things that people say should not happen. We are now seeing Kingston trying to regain control of vendors after letting them exist haphazardly for years, and doing it with the heavy hand, which rankles people. We’ve tolerated tax evasion–and are reaping the whirlwind of ‘revenue leakage’.

    We are nepotistic, and that is a recipe for no good in the long run.

    We are also cunning and creative (‘jinalship’ in local argot). Jamaicans could get satellite TV years before any company was offering it, as people imported and mounted their own dishes. We’ve found ways to transcend the limitation of cable boxes. We know how to steal electricity and water–necessity being the mother of invention? If a way around exists, chances are a Jamaican found it.

    Would that we could put all of that to productive ends.

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  2. Good heavens! You are the first person I have met who thinks that Jamaican drivers are disciplined! 🙂 What about the cab drivers? I have seen drivers go through stop lights many times. Do we live in the same country?

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    1. Cab drivers are not the universe of drivers but a small subset. Their motivation on the road is not the same as general motorists. British cabbies are notably held to very high standards and in London it was almost a closed shop. Elsewhere taxi drivers are notorious, even to be avoided unless no options. Jamaican taxi drivers are a bit better than I’ve seen in most non industrial countries.

      Seeing rule breaking is not my point. It’s how routine it is. In Washington DC it’s endemic so that you have many accidents from it. Our NRSC friends don’t have this as a major cause of accidents. With cameras at lights catching red runners has become very lucrative in some industrial cities.

      Traffic infractions in Jamaica tend towards the jinalship side: insurance, registration, maintenance issues.

      When was the last time you saw someone drive the wrong way on a road to avoid traffic hold ups?

      Wanton (not authorised) double parking is not common, for instance.

      We may not see the same things but then again we don’t move in the same ways. I’ve been doing a mental check for a few months.

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      1. The main problem here is speeding and this is the cause of many accidents. I don’t agree that most traffic infractions are just not having insurance, etc. A friend of mine visiting Negril (she has a bad back and uses a cane) nearly got run over trying to cross Norman Manley Blvd recently. Cars simply would not slow down. In fact more than one tourist has been run over on that road. As for being safer by not stopping at red lights, I only think that applies if you are driving downtown late at night. The rest of the time…I do believe red means stop! 🙂

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  3. Reblogged this on Jamaican Journal and commented:
    I really appreciate this blog from this economist. It examines the myth of the undisciplined Jamaica. In one sense, I agree with the fact that Jamaicans are good drivers. They are aware and courteous. However, they do drive WAY too fast. The example in this post of Jamaicans following the rules of the bus lane do illustrate a penchant for following traffic rules, but it seems at other times, all bets are off. Like running red lights in the wee hours of the morning, which I’ve been told is for safety reasons. And not following speed limits. So perhaps the fact that people do not use the bus lane when they could is an interesting example. It would certainly cut the distance and time of their trip, thus saving them money. So why would they not take this opportunity? I guess we would first assume that the collective conscious has agreed to follow the rule, then we would have to ask individual drivers. I would love to know the response. In any case, it is an interesting, instructive observation that as an amateur political scientist, I would love to follow up on.

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    1. There’s history to not stopping at lights in wee hours–banditry. If we accept self preservation as a good motive then reluctance to stop at night is not indiscipline but sensible. Still, you see this more in extreme situations not all the time or v often.

      I think speed has to be put in context of what rules are clearly stated. Jamaican roads lack speed limit signs as a common feature so ‘common sense’ is left to prevail, and it’s not common.

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      1. Yes, when I first moved here and people didn’t stop at the lights, I asked why and they told me it is to keep safe. That makes sense. A lack of road signs would dictate that people decide for themselves what speed works for them. I think it is also a function of difficult economic times- everybody just trying to survive, hustle, make money and squeeze in as much as possible.

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      2. Driving on US roads, especially freeways, makes for interesting comparisons. In FL (as in many states), impatient drivers often drive on the ‘hard shoulder’ to create a lane to get past lines of slower traffic. That’s dangerous in general, because it’s not for driving but for emergency stopping etc. Occasionally, there are accidents with cars legitimately parked in such lanes. Lane discipline is very US-like: everyman has his place wherever he wants it. For European-trained drivers (and Jamaica came from UK tradition), lane discipline tended to be more strictly followed. (I’ve not driver in UK or France or Germany for a few years, but it was still so in the mid-2000s.) I can’t decide if US drivers are indisciplined, badly trained, incompetent or all.

        I’ve pondered the economic arguments but didn’t find they flew in the past. Each culture tends to have its ‘style’. Some friends today talked about the madness of Brazilian drivers. I’ve experienced the maddest driving in Italy, Greece and Turkey. These countries may be developed but also have suffered bad economic times for many years. I hear that Nigeria–at least, Lagos–is real chaos. Countries which have lower car ownership and have bad economic times may also have really bad infrastructure and it’s about ‘survival’ on the roads.
        May have to think about that a bit more.

        Thanks.

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