The last few days have given me an insight into why change in Jamaica is difficult. The proximate topic was changes to road traffic laws. I did not listen to any of the discussion in Parliament. But, I heard a barrage of mainly negative comments on the radio. One of the things that was clear from some radio interviews was a willingness of our policy makers to borrow ideas from abroad–not surprising, given that we are developing and take ideas from developed countries. But, these ideas were implemented without seeking to adjust for known aspects of the Jamaican environment and population. So, when it appears that the policies aren’t working well, the official attitude is that Jamaicans must change their ways. Just so! An official from the National Works Agency (Stephen Shaw) talked about how Jamaicans don’t follow rules, then lamented how the rules that need to be followed aren’t followed. Hello! His minister (Dr. Morais Guy) wanted to walk along the same street. The problem that was annoying was a set of controlled pedestrian crossings at Crossroads (how apt), where pedestrians do not have enough time to cross the roads. Able-bodied people struggle and those with disabilities have little or no chance. Let’s just stop and think a minute.

Germany is renowned as a country where people follow rules, almost without question. It’s got nothing to do with drinking flagons of weissbier from birth. It’s about what people have imposed on them. It’s called ‘implementation’. When I first went to Germany in the 1970s, I was surprised to see electronic pedestrian crossings. In England, I’d grown up used to ‘zebra crossings’, with stripes on the road, and a flashing amber light (‘Belisha beacon’) signalling its location. It’s clear, from a distance, to drivers and pedestrians. It’s set up to aid crossing safely.

Typical British road crossing

Typical British road crossing

Motorists were supposed to stop if someone was crossing or wanting to cross, as they approached the stripes. If the road was clear, though, I could cross at my leisure. In Germany, I saw people standing on the sidewalk looking across at a light. The road was clear, but no one moved. I started to cross. “Nein!” I heard a gaggle of voices cry. I turned round and saw people beckoning me back, frowns on their faces. Then, the lights changed and everyone marched over. Someone muttered about how irresponsible I had been to try to cross. Simple point: Germans were brought up to obey the lighted crossing rules; the society enforced it; and if needed, the police would enforce it.

Fast forward. These kinds of crossings are now commonplace in the UK. But, I remember when they were introduced and see how they are used now. People still have plenty of chances to cross roads when they can, and if they cross at an electronic crossing, the general attitude of the nation is ‘So what?’ That’s part of British upbringing, and it’s not a real problem. For a German, that would be like taking a free ticket to Hell.

The German ingraining is so deep that even when streets are closed to traffic for special events or weekends, say, for farmers’ markets, people generally will not cross until the light is in their favour.

Germans tend not to cross until they are instructed to do so

Germans tend not to cross until they are instructed to do so

A recent article in England’s ‘Daily Telegragh’ confirms my experiences and emphasises these differences between Germany and the UK.

Jamaica is not Germany. Whatever the reasons for our lack of orderliness, it is there. So, why in Heaven’s name expect rules to govern what we do? Our children are raised learning to put up a hand to halt traffic and then taking each other’s hands and crossing the road wherever they can. We continue that behaviour everywhere. We don’t have the infrastructure in general that is consistent with orderly crossing: look at the number of painted crossings that are simply faded almost to being invisible. We don’t have crossing places that make much sense to pedestrians, because we have structured roads for cars, primarily. Look at the extent of our roadways, even in dense residential areas, that do not have places for people to walk safely. Taking your chance with the road is the national norm. So, where are you going with a set of rules that run counter to what is the norm?

How Jamaican chlldren learn to cross roads

How Jamaican children learn to cross roads

Implicitly, we know this is how people will behave. We design (or don’t) space and ‘force’ people to cross when and where they can. Look at where Hydel School of José Marti School is situated–right by highways or roundabouts with no safe designated crossing. They have been that way for years!  The problem did not jump out of the ground yesterday. It was unplanned development in that it left people to cope with the ridiculous. 

Look at how many commercial areas are set up. They are not set up so that pedestrians can move between them easily, unless it’s in a plaza. There are few crossings if businesses are set on both sides of a busy street. As I’ve noted many times before, who will just stroll 400 meters to cross (then have to stroll 400 meters back) when the target is just 10 meters across the street?

Of course, we compound our problems in this regard because the motorists think they are kings (or queens) of the road. Give way to pedestrians? Who tell you so? Well, that’s what the law says. “But, I can’t read, mi boss…” Aha!

In England, they call the humps meant to slow down vehicles ‘sleeping policemen’. In Jamaica, we often don’t slow down for them and use them like roller coasters. But, we also have the real sleeping policemen. I’ve seen too many police eyes averted to road infractions to believe that they are trained to impose road laws.

Look, Officer!

Look, Officer!

They love to issue tickets to taxi and bus operators, or hide in wait to catch motorists speeding, but stop other infractions?

Someone asked about implementing laws against jaywalking in Jamaica. I nearly rolled off my sofa laughing. In the same way that buying food and fruit on the roadside is Jamaica, so too is crossing the road liberally. I don’t know if the caller moves through rural Jamaica much, but I can suggest a trip and figure out how between any two communities people will cross the road without jaywalking.

We think and act, without really assessing consequences, as if that is enough. We need to think and act with consequences in mind. There is a whole world of difference between the two states.