Traffic Culture and Corruption: A Few More Thoughts

Why does traffic behave differently in different places? Why does driving in Cairo set the nerves on edge, while in Munich people stoically wait for crossing signals, even at minor intersections?

One’s first impulse may be to reach for cultural explanations. In Chinese cities, where queuing can seem rampantly disorderly (something the government endeavored to correct ahead of the Olympics), perhaps it’s only natural that negotiating an intersection can seem so trying. Go to Denmark, with its famously self-effacing and polite residents, and the highways are largely marked by scrupulous lane discipline and a lack of horn honking.

Or maybe it’s urban density, and the vehicle mix. Delhi is more crowded than New York or London, packing some 48 different modes of transport onto its streets. In sprawling Los Angeles, there is essentially one mode — the car — and plenty of wide (if congested) streets to drive on. How could the former not seem more “chaotic,” at least to the uninitiated?

Perhaps economics has an answer. The American economist George McDowell, using as an opener John F.A. Taylor’s comment that the “market is… a traffic in claims, not in things” — i.e., it’s not only commodities per se but relationships between people and things — goes on to postulate a theory that a country’s traffic behavior has something to do with its market structure.

China, McDowell argues, has historically had a mixed economic structure — some state-owned enterprises, but also a “long entrepreneurial tradition.” In the latter system the advertised price on a product is often just a suggestion; the real price is whatever is agreed upon. If you pay too much, the “advantage” goes to the shopkeeper. And so it is with Chinese traffic: Turning, merging, yielding and the like are opportunities to be gained or lost. If one is cut off, one accepts that they have been bested in this one-time transaction.

Contrast that to the U.S., where being cut off might bring on a voluble burst of “road rage” by the offended party. Fairness and justice are prized (if also violated). As with traffic, McDowell notes, Americans view markets not as “free” but as “open,” governed by formal and informal rules, where “opportunistic behavior is expected and even encouraged but within a strict set of parameters.”

As a rough rule of thumb, then, one might say if you’re driving in a place where bargaining over transactions is expected, there will be a good deal of bargaining on the road. If you’re in a place where the set price is always paid, you might expect traffic behavior to also follow these implicit top-down rules.

There’s another way to think about traffic, one which encompasses culture and economics. In a dispatch from Cairo (“Drivers hope by bypass Cairo’s tamer roads,” August 9) published in the Financial Times, Heba Saleh described new efforts by Cairene officials to improve safety on the city’s legendarily disorderly streets. New fines were being introduced, and stiffer laws. The only problem is the question of who’s going to enforce the laws, in a place long marked by corruption. Not to mention some of the laws — like ones requiring cars to carry first-aid kits — seem less designed to improve safety than provide more outlets for bribe-seeking traffic police.

Which brings us to corruption. There is a curious relationship between a country’s rank on Transparency International’s “Corruption Perceptions Index” and its road fatality rate. According to a paper by economists Nejat Anbarci, Monica Escaleras, and Charles Register, this relationship is slightly more robust than the link between fatalities and GDP (“Smeed’s Law” famously noted that as a country becomes richer, its fatality rate drops — even as more cars are added).

To take the two extremes of the TI list, Finland and Nigeria, in the former there is a country whose government feels confident to issue speeding tickets based on a person’s wealth (and that police will not be tempted by potentially remunerative payoffs); in the latter there is a place where traffic cops and “area boys” compete for bribes at impromptu, traffic-clogging “checkpoints” amidst the thrombosis of Lagos.

These differences are to be expected, perhaps. But why? Is it merely economic development? Or culture? And which, if either, “comes first”? This is a question answered in compelling detail in the recent book Economic Gangsters, by economists Raymond Fisman and Edward Miguel.

Comparing Nigeria to, say, Norway, in something like law-abidingness, however, is “a matter of apples and oranges.” To actually extract the role of something like culture, you would need to “somehow put Norwegians in an environment with weak legal enforcement to find out what Nordic conscience and social norms — and not the Norwegian police — tell them what to do.” Their elegant solution to this was to look at the number of U.N. diplomats who got parking tickets in New York City (often far from the U.N.). Diplomats have immunity from prosecution for this, of course, so the matter of whether or not to obey traffic regulations would really come to do personal choice (informed by cultural norms). And, not surprisingly perhaps, some of the most corrupt countries on the TI list racked up the most tickets. This may seem mundane, but as the authors argue, “the parking violations study offers a cautionary tale for international aid donors, who, like [Paul] Wolfowitz, aim to reduce corruption in developing countries: corrupt behavior is deeply engrained in culture and no small matter to root out. The standard prescriptions of economic rewards and punishments may not be enough.” (indeed, they point to the example of Bogota mayor Antanus Mockus, who famously employed mimes in the city to ridicule people who violated traffic rules; “Mockus felt that efforts at attitudinal change were fundamental to all of his reforms”).

The “culture” argument may indeed help the more surprising discrepancy in traffic safety between the Netherlands and Belgium, two countries quite alike in many ways, including GDP. Yet Belgium shows up further down on TI’s list, and higher up on the traffic fatalities ranking. As the Belgian economist Lode Vereeck has found, Belgians, in polls, seem more resistant to traffic legislation and to obeying traffic laws. Is it because they have less faith in the system enacting and enforcing laws? (to complicate things, there is a north-south divide on traffic safety and enforcement within Belgium itself).

Corruption influences traffic in many ways. Its foot soldier is the traffic cop, and in country after country, traffic police are typically ranked by the populace as the most corrupt government entity — not surprising given the various ways they can extract bribes, and because they are the most prevalent symbol of officialdom in average citizen’s everyday lives. Then there are the driver’s licensing bureaucrats who send unskilled drivers onto roads, or the soldiers who slow trucks at checkpoints, letting them and their unsafe vehicles through with a bribe (slowing traffic and making roads more dangerous at once).

Ending the cycle of corruption is daunting. Poorly paid police have little to gain from not taking bribes, drivers are happier to pay them then pilot through bureaucratic channels, and the corruption market itself has perverse effects. Corruption expert Susan Rose-Ackerman notes that for driver’s licensing officials, the presence of honest officials only raises the bribe stakes for corrupt officials. As more honest officials, lured by the high bribes, enter the corruption market, the price of a bribe drops — thus sending even more unqualified drivers onto the streets.

The traffic cop or checkpoint soldier may seem a minor figure in the anti-corruption wars, but as a study by Benjamin Olken and Patrick Barron of the bribes paid by truck drivers in Indonesia suggested, fighting corruption at the top of an organization may only undermine the “institutional coordination” of bribe seeking — resulting in even more bribes by those at the bottom. And on the roads, the place where the law and the average citizen meet the most, reduced corruption means a greater incentive for drivers to follow laws. Their faith in the government may also trickle up. Traffic, in a sense, is the health of the state.

This entry was posted on Friday, February 13th, 2009 at 8:56 am and is filed under Cities, Etc., Roads, Traffic Culture, Traffic Enforcement. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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Traffic Tom Vanderbilt

How We Drive is the companion blog to Tom Vanderbilt’s New York Times bestselling book, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), published by Alfred A. Knopf in the U.S. and Canada, Penguin in the U.K, and in languages other than English by a number of other fine publishers worldwide.

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Metropolis and Mobile Life
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February 2009

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