Posts Tagged 'self-driving cars'

Cutting corners.

Strolling down a quiet street in Vancouver’s south side my friend and I came to Oak Street, which at that time of evening is more or less a freeway: three lanes of heavy traffic in each direction.

As we waited for the light to change, a row of vehicles accumulated next to us, all signalling to turn right onto Oak. The traffic was unremitting, but the lead car nosed forward, looking for a break in the outside lane. Finally a gap appeared and the car squealed sharply around the corner, miscalculating the turn slightly and bumping one tire off the curb.

Five seconds later the light changed and the rest of the cars were able to make the turn.

As my friend and I crossed Oak Street, I said, “You know, sometimes I think they have it right in New York City, banning right turns on red.”

“They do?” my friend asked.

“Yeah,” I said. “There’s that line in Annie Hall where Woody Allen says something like, ‘The only cultural advantage to living in L.A. is you can make a right turn on a red light.'”

My friend said nothing: I think she disapproved of my quoting Woody Allen. I went on, “You’re only supposed to make a right turn on red when it’s safe to proceed. But what happens is, if there’s anyone waiting behind you, you feel pressured to turn right even when it’s not particularly safe. Like that lady a minute ago who bumped off the curb. She could’ve waited five seconds for the light to change, but she probably felt like she was holding up the line.”

I told my friend about a similar incident that I’d experienced while driving home a few days before. I’d been in a line to turn right at a red. Just as I reached the front of the line, the light turned green, and two pedestrians began to cross in front of me. I could’ve zipped in front of them, as most big city drivers would have, but I decided to play it safe and wait for them to cross – slowing the progress of the line by five, maybe ten seconds. The driver behind me broke out in furious honks and gestures.

“Next time,” I said, “I’ll be a little less cautious when I come to an intersection. Out of fear of being honked at.”

I thought back to this conversation a few days later when, driving down a quiet residential street, I noticed that I was speeding. I realized something embarrassing: I exceed the speed limit more often on side streets than I do on busy arterials.

On a street with multiple lanes, impatient drivers can easily veer around me when I stick to the limit – so I do. Whereas on a single-lane side street it isn’t possible for them to pass, so they pull up close behind me, prompting me to accelerate to preserve a comfortable driving distance.

Why do I react this way? Partly out of concern for my own safety: if I have to slam on the brakes I don’t want to be plowed into from behind.

But partly because I’m afraid of being thought uncool by the unknown person driving behind me.

I wonder what will happen when robot cars become ubiquitous on city streets. Will the robots, impervious to peer pressure, stick stubbornly to the traffic laws as written?

Or will human drivers, disgusted at having ceded the streets to a bunch of rule-abiding robot nerds, insist on tweaking their programming to make the robots cut corners as we do?


Lloyd Alter at TreeHugger emphasizes the danger to pedestrians and cyclists of right turns on red. In April, in an essay about Jordan Peterson and Alexander Solzhenitsyn, I recounted another unpleasant crosswalk interaction from the pedestrian’s point-of-view. Back in 2016 I looked into a study that claimed crosswalk timers led to an increase in rear-end collisions.

Michael A. Charles is a writer, animator, and musician currently living in the Vancouver area. He used to be the singer and guitarist for the band known as Sea Water Bliss.

You can find a selection of his cartoons, music videos, and ads on the Gallery page.

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