Life is like a traffic jam.

I’m thinking of the junction near Desa Sri Hartamas, Kuala Lumpur, where cars in the inside two lanes are allowed to turn right but those in the outside left lane are meant to go straight on.

Many drivers who want to turn right stick dutifully to the correct lanes. But some drive up on the outside and sharply turn in ahead of the rest when the light is red so they have a clear path.

Those who I’ve talked to about this junction all agree this is despicable behaviour. Some even try to angle their cars to block the drivers trying to turn in illegally. But this then has the unfortunate side effect of also blocking all the drivers who want to legally go straight on, resulting in an almighty traffic jam.

A selfish act by one results in inconvenience for many.

This is also why you sometimes encounter a traffic jam that suddenly disperses for no obvious reason. These “phantom” jams are a result of a phenomenon called “jamitons”, named in a paper produced by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the United States (tinyurl.com/j27tzvd).

When a car suddenly brakes on a highway, it sometimes results in a chain reaction when the car behind it brakes suddenly in reaction, and then the car behind that follows suit, etc. If the chain is long enough, it will result in cars further back coming to a standstill.

“Must be some awkward driver from out of town,” you whisper to yourself, not realising the awkward driver is probably you.

The best way to avoid this phenomenon is to drive smoothly and avoid sudden braking manoeuvres. That means leaving a lot of space between you and the car in front of you – about two seconds worth, or 60m if you’re driving at 110kp/h.

It’s a lot of space. But it results in smoother traffic. Instead of jabbing your brake pedal in reaction to what the car in front does, you now have the opportunity to gradually slow down, dropping by 5kp/h or 10kp/h. This means the car behind you is less likely to slow down suddenly as well.

There is also a potential downside. Having so much space in front of you tempts other cars to slip in and take your place in the lane. You have to then momentarily slow down to keep the two-second distance, pushing you slightly further behind.

But it’s not a big deal. If every car slows you for two seconds, then 100 cars would only cause a delay of 200 seconds to your trip. Surely a small price to pay for smoother traffic?

Of course it’s inherently unfair that people take advantage of your generosity and careful driving, but it’s what some conscientious people do to keep the peace.

A bit like life, really. We see lots of stuff around us that is technically wrong but we choose not to do much about it because … it keeps the peace.

You have similar situations in organisations and programmes sometimes. I remember when the organisation I work for was looking at a programme years ago, when Malaysians returning to work in Malaysia were allowed to bring their own cars back. The good people at the Inland Revenue Board, however, pointed us to a loophole: In some cases, a single individual brought back not one but two Rolls Royces! It seemed unlikely they were for personal use….

Examples like this made it easy to amend the programme. But the amendment was seen negatively by many who felt they lost out by having to sell their cars before returning home.

What I’m saying is that although many issues can be resolved if people stuck to the rules, the challenge is how do you get them to stick to the rules?

Our initial reaction tends to be to call for more stringent enforcement or greater penalties. But that is always received badly. Take for example the traffic Automatic Enforcement System implemented here. There was such a backlash to it that it had to be withdrawn temporarily, despite studies showing it reduced speeding and accidents in other countries.

People don’t react well to being reminded they are lawbreakers.

In contrast, to reduce traffic in Stockholm, city planners decided to implement a 2 Swedish krona (RM1) charge at bridges used to enter the city – it’s a small amount when compared to, say, parking charges in the city.

When the system was first implemented, 70% of those surveyed said they didn’t like it. But it resulted in a 20% reduction in traffic, which, in real terms, transformed “traffic jams” into “light traffic”. Over years, the local populace grew to accept and even support the charge.

The most interesting aspect is that when they surveyed drivers years later, they found out that more than half of the respondents said that they never changed their driving habits! (Ted.com/talks/jonas_eliasson_how_to_solve_traffic_jams.) It’s this sort of scheme that makes a difference.

An interesting comparison is Malaysia’s Goods and Services Tax (GST). The jury is still out on it, but I find the situation compelling, at least in terms of getting companies to correctly audit and report their accounts.

A car workshop tried to get me to pay for some repairs under the table with the incentive that I wouldn’t have to pay the GST.

At first I thought that this was a negative aspect of GST, because merchants can now offer a 6% discount to customers to keep profits off the books.

But then I also realised that if the workshop had to purchase spare parts which incurred the GST, they needed to have that on the books when they sell it on to the customer if they want to be able to deduct it from their input. (Merchants can offset the GST they pay to suppliers by passing the charge on to their customers.)

So what about that junction near Desa Sri Hartamas? I don’t know what the answer is, but I’m quite sure putting a policeman or traffic camera there is not the most efficient way of resolving the problem.

My guess is that we should actually place a barrier to physically stop cars in the far lane from turning right, while making drivers aware earlier on that there are alternative routes to take to avoid the jam at the traffic light.

And, sometimes, you just have to be patient and wait your turn. Just like life.


Logic is the antithesis of emotion but mathematician-turned-scriptwriter Dzof Azmi’s theory is that people need both to make sense of life’s vagaries and contradictions.