Why Traffic Lights Signal Democracy

Historian of technology Rachel Maines explains the most fascinating insight to emerge from her current research.
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TRANSCRIPT

Question: What’s the most unexpected insight to emerge from your current work?

Rachel Maines: Well, actually I'm working on a book about building codes, which sounds deadly dull compared to the other things that I've done, but what I'm interested in is injury epidemiology, which my second book's about, “Asbestos and Fire,” and I'm interested in how all the rules that go with our built environment, building codes, if you go out, if you go out and walk around in New York City or anywhere, just sometime when you're not thinking about anything else, take note of how much of the built environment has to do with protecting ourselves against danger. The curbs on the street, the lines that are painted on the street, the traffic signals, the signs. These are all aspects of the built environment that help keep our death rate down. And parts of the world where they don't do that kind of thing or where they don't read the signs or pay attention to them and they're, unfortunately, a lot of places like that. They have the signs and they don't read them or pay attention, they have a much higher death rate. And it's a much more serious and somber subject than these other three. I sort of go back and forth between death and destruction and fun and games and, you know, it kind of keeps life interesting. I think that the most fascinating thing about the work that I'm doing now, that strikes me, I think the most interesting insight, is that it's not so much having a democracy that makes those codes, those building codes and safety codes work, it's the habit of democracy. That it just, you know, making your country a democracy, you know, doesn't inculcate that habit, but we're accustomed to, like, you know, in elementary school when we learn Robert’s Rules Of Order, right? And so we're accustomed to the parliamentary procedure, and kids in Britain, same thing, you know, they know all about that.

And by the time, you know, a few generations have gone by, you're used to the idea that you don't run red lights. You don't, you know, ignore signs that say wrong way. You know, you don't cross the yellow lines if you want to stay alive. And that somehow is a part, although it's an ordering and some people would say a kind of hegemony over people's lives, it really does seem to be a tool of keeping people alive in democracy. It's an elaborate way of putting it, but I'm sure you see what I mean, that it's a lifesaver. And keeping people alive is one of the functions of democracies.

Recorded on December 14, 2009
Interviewed by Austin Allen