Colombo driver’s survival guide – mystery of the coloured lights


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.

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21 thoughts on “Colombo driver’s survival guide – mystery of the coloured lights

  1. “…The colour red is not well perceived by Colombo drivers…”

    I dunno.. I always thought a red light to a driver was just the modern interpretation of a red flag to a bull. The parallels are obvious, especially since bulls are colourblind and so seem to be many of our motorists.

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  2. You forgot the worst ones – where one or two of the lights don’t work. When the red is not lit people assume the lights are not working and sail through, straight into oncoming traffic.

    ps. I think the colour is spelled amber.

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  3. This is a fabulous post… πŸ™‚

    Some things I’ve always wanted to say have been listed here..:) I’m gonna remember this and smile when I drive home today… πŸ˜€ for sure…:)

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  4. The problem is after the “Khaki” guy goes off duty the three wheelers think what “Khaki” did was correct and break all the rules.

    Best option is to run the colour light manually by the “Khaki” guy during the rush hour. This will discipline the drivers and pedestrians.

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  5. It’s not that bad…I started appreciating Sri Lankan driving behavior after my trip to Chennai recently. I’m glad I didn’t have to drive over there.

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  6. Didn’t expect such a flood of comments πŸ˜€ Very happy to hear that my keyboard pecks are enjoyable enough for people to take the time to say so πŸ™‚ Thank you.

    Specially given the fact that Mrs C just pointed out shocking 😯 number of typos in this post 😳
    My apologies – I’ll make my pathetic excuses later in another post. :mrgreen:

    Chaar~Max: I’m trying not to grumble about politics though not very successfully πŸ™‚

    Nishadha: Standards? 😯 πŸ˜† that’s a good one πŸ™‚

    Dili: You are spot on! Should of though of that, but my bull fighting days are a yellowed memory. Good thing you brought up that point πŸ™‚

    Azrael: Thank you πŸ™‚

    Jack Point: Quite right. That one slipped though πŸ™‚ and many thanks for spotting the typo.

    RD: Same here πŸ™‚ The best I could make of it is “watch out for people breaking the lights”

    lady divine: Thank you πŸ™‚ You made my day! to know anything I wrote triggered a smile somewhere πŸ˜€ makes all the blogging feel worthwhile. I know I know that sounds soppy. But the truth is allowed to be soppy now and then.

    donald: Interesting point πŸ™‚ I wonder if the Police are trained for that or if the lights can be manually operated on site.

    Tania: Makes you feel thankful for the small mercies no?

    Pink Mist: No idea and I hope none of us finds out πŸ™‚

    Drive safe!

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  7. surprisingly, I miss driving in Colombo too πŸ™‚ Driving in Boston was an extreme bore, and now in Newyork, it’s a little bit better. Enjoy it while you can !

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  8. “If you are stopped at a red light, chances are the lunatics behind you are already honking madly at whoever’ in front of them.”

    I still laugh when I think about how I’d be the third or fourth car in line at a red light and the person behind me would start honking the second the light turned green!!

    “If the police person directing the traffic knows what they are doing everything flows smoothly.”

    During my 6 months there, the worst traffic jams were when an officer would be directing traffic. I guess I wasn’t fortunate enough to ever come across an officer who knew what they were doing! 😦

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  9. β€œ…If the police person directing the traffic knows what they are doing everything flows smoothly…”

    A few years back, before the colour lights and the redoing of the road, there was this wonderful officer at the Narahenpita junction. He directed traffic brilliantly in the early morning school rush and he did it with a smile. It was such a difference from all the gorilla faced morons elsewhere. He was smiling so much I wondered whether he was a mental case. πŸ˜€ Wonder where he is now…

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  10. Long time ago I have seen — Wellawatte Traffic lights was operating manually. Also seen in Japan they too operate the traffic lights manually when required.

    There is a control box near the traffic lights which can be open and fix the manual switch code.

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  11. scrumpulicious and sep: You both have my sympathies πŸ™‚

    Ian: Yes its very much dependent on the officer directing the traffic. There’s a second junction we pass through on the way to toil. It has no light just the uniform. The usual guy is a very sedate guy with a sad sad expression. He lets the drivers sort their way through and only intervenes when needed. Miraculously this hands off approach work s wonders. His thankfully occasional replacement is an eager beaver who flaps his white gloves and creates a log jam.

    sep: I’ll confess to honking at the slow poke in-front of me at least once πŸ˜‰ He took 4 entire seconds to start moving! At least I waited till the green light came on πŸ™‚

    Dili: At least he’s happy πŸ™‚ and he’s spreading happiness to people on the roads. Now THAT is true service. I wish him well too πŸ™‚

    Donald: Now that is a hackable idea πŸ™‚

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