Swerving wildly from part 1 of the series on driving in Colombo, we approach a common enigma on Colombo roads: coloured lights at intersections. Quaintly called “traffic lights” for some obscure reason. They work because the city aka Colombo Municipal Council (often called the “Municipality”) can miraculously afford to pay for electricity and some form of maintenance.
These lights mean many things to many people. Irrespective of your interpretation, they create their own microcosm of behaviour – mostly dangerous. Having the wrong expectation of how people will respond will get you and others killed or injured.
The key to survival is an understanding of how people might respond to the changing colours. Here’s my take on them based entirely on casual observation with unsubstantiated claims.
GREEN: At intersections or if you are turning into a main road, this light means “watch out for people breaking the red light”. Some people will also interpret this light as a sign to accelerate or honk madly (mostly both). Particularly if you were at a yellow/amber light. The green light is seen a rare institutional acknowledgement of a driver’s right of way. People will die defending it. Some think the almighty green light miraculously removes obstacles in their path such as pedestrians, cross traffic etc. This faith may cause drivers to accelerate suddenly when the green light appears. I suggest you don’t. Proceed forward with utmost vigilance.
YELLOW/AMBER: A sign of impending chaos amidst the usual chaos. A warning to get ready to react to something, anything. If you are stopped at a red light, chances are the lunatics behind you are already honking madly at whoever’ in front of them. If the light was green most people will (subliminally) see this is a signal to step on the gas. Stopping will be the last thing on their minds.
RED: For a seizable number of people this light is meaningless.
However it is advisable to stop because you may collide with cross traffic determined to defend their right of way. People in front or behind you may or may not stop. The colour red is not well perceived by Colombo drivers as a sign to stop (many thanks to Dili for correcting me on this). They keep seeing a YELLOW light long after it has changed to RED. If you are stopping make it clear that you are stopping. The idiots behind you may shocked and disgusted that you had the audacity to stop at a red light. Naturally they will honk psychotically (I know I’ve used “madly” too many times already).
The duration of each light varies according to the road you are on. At some, the green light stays on for only a few seconds infuriating everyone. Thankfully during rush hour the traffic police takes over and everyone ignores the light. Legally. If the police person directing the traffic knows what they are doing everything flows smoothly. Thankfully our morning commute is the hands of a very capable master in khaki who also has a faithful apprentice. The day neither of them show up its chaos and I’m late for work. But then so is everyone else.
Charging through a RED light has its downsides besides getting killed or maimed. It will also give the gents in Khaki cause to stop you and issue strange pieces of paper in exchange for your drivers licence. This does not apply if you are a politician, a politician’s gang member or organised crime figure (yes the distinctions between the three are fuzzy but humour me). The real punishment for getting a traffic fine is having to waste your time running between police stations and the post office than the piddling fine you’ll have to pay. Well maybe not so piddling with inflation.
As with the rest of the highway code, not everyone shares my interpretation of traffic lights. These ideological deviants are too willing to roll the dice and charge the red light. With the mad hope of getting somewhere a few seconds earlier. What’s the point they’ll get late anyway. Getting killed/injured is a sure fire way to miss an appointment.
Being a tolerant soul I won’t get in their way. Just be careful when that light turn what ever colour. Realise that you are in a battle field – the only difference is that you have half a chance to dodge the bullets if you are alert. Perhaps this is why I love Colombo traffic jams. Its a great way to stop those speed demons. But that’s another story.
Drive safe out there.