In the morning, with my son and heir beside me, I risk both our lives. I take him by the hand, descend to the car and drive him to school. I drive no more than about four miles, but each morning there is a close call at some intersection. I have noticed something about America. Red lights don't mean a thing anymore.
In New York, the situation is out of hand. Even The New York Times took note of it. In Washington, a more provincial place, the situation may not be quite so bad. Nevertheless, you can assume that soon after the light facing you turns green, someone will run the red.
It's obvious that walking or driving is a bit more dangerous than it used to be. What is not obvious, though, is what has caused normally law-abiding Americans to suddenly decide that red lights mean nothing. What has come over America that has made crossing the street much more risky than it used to be?
Well, one answer is the only federally mandated program that conservatives do not complain about -- right turn on red. Right turn on red was instituted nationally in an attempt to save gas, and it probably does that. It also does one other thing. It has taught us that a red light does not always mean stop. It can mean, in fact, what we want it to mean.
Now I know there is a difference between permitting people to turn right on red and suspending all rules of the road. But for most of us -- most of us in the East, anyway -- going through a red light was something you never did. It just never occurred to us. Even at two in the morning, with no traffic in sight, we would stop at a red light -- and wait. We were all on the honor system and most of us honored the system.
But then came right turn on red. The first time I made a right turn on a red light, I felt the way I did when I started the school day by filching gum from the local five and ten. I was thrilled! What a rush I got. Goodbye booze. No need for drugs. All I needed for a really terrific high was to turn on a red light. There is nothing quite as exciting as doing something illegal.
But, of course, it is no longer illegal. No matter. It is clear that while the law had changed, the light had not. It was still red. And if you could turn right on it and not be struck dead for doing something wrong, then you could run it. The principle, after all, was the same -- you decide when to go.
But something else happened relatively recently. Things started not to work. In a country where everything worked, where you could count on machines and men to do the jobs they were supposed to do, neither the machines nor the men seemed to give a damn. The trains didn't work and the cars didn't work and the people who ran them or repaired them didn't work, either. Houses got built and didn't work and the paper doesn't come in the morning and you can stand in line for a movie and not even get in.
This is the beginning of Third Worldism. To economists, the Third World may be a description of the economy of developing nations, but to me it's a place where there are too many people and nothing works -- including traffic lights. In the Third World, crossing the street is a scary undertaking. A green light means go. So does a red light. This is because sometimes the light is green because it is working and sometimes it is green because it is not working. So everyone goes at once. In some countries, this makes the automobile the principle agent of population control.T his is what has been happening here. The growth of population coupled with the expectation that things will not work, has produced a kind of Third World mentality: You've got to take things into your own hands. You can't rely on systems, on protocol, on etiquette. Everyone is anonymous and it's every man for himself.
In the Third World, this is probably the way it has always been. In America, it is something new -- but no less dangerous. Cars are running lights and people are getting killed. Maybe it would be better to get rid of right turn on red -- waste some gas and save some lives. But it would be best of all if people simply stopped running red lights. It's not the Third World, but that's not the point. In the mornings, for me and my son, this is the only world we have.