Monday, 23 April 2007

Rude Driving

Woke up early today. Felt fresh and energetic, with much optimism and eagerness to brace the challenges that this new week brings. Like an enthusiastic bunny, I got ready to work.

Then came the driving.

As usual the town traffic was real bad, no surprise there. But today, I must have woken up with an ‘I am a pushover’ label on my forehead. At least 20 cars cut into my lane rudely, mostly without having the courtesy to signal. Dozens used emergency lanes to avoid queuing and then jammed their stupid cars into the normal lanes, causing massive traffic standstill for those who were polite enough to drive normally. And when two or more lanes merge into one, again you will get standstill because nobody would make way, and drive like they were playing side-way chicken – as though being a car length behind on the road would result in catastrophic consequences.

And then an ambulance passed by. Not only were cars reluctant to make way, some actually trailed behind the ambulance, exploiting the temporary split traffic.

What the freaking shit is wrong with us, Malaysian drivers?

Predictably, I reach work annoyed, grumpy and full of bad vibes… *mumble grumble*

Rationalising Rude Driving

While not everyday is as bad, the situation I just described is normal by most standards. If you want to witness the worst of Malaysia, you have an option watching a parliamentary debate or driving during peak hours. Rudeness and arrogance trump civic-mindedness and common courtesy. The irony of this is that if everyone drives politely, I am almost certain that the traffic jam would be much better (personally, traffic congestion is a function of volume of traffic and the cooperative behaviour of drivers).

In a society, acts that are rude and exploit the goodness of others are normally frowned upon and usually punished, either formally or not. Such is the basis that ensures that the welfare of everyone is protected and for the society to grow. Some of these are informal norms while others are formally enforced. For examples, someone who cuts queue in a post-office is subjected to the informal disapproval of everyone else while someone who steals will be punished by law.

While the examples given above are exceptions rather than norms, the problem of rude driving in Malaysia is the reverse. Why is this so?

I can think of two reasons:

1. Repetition

In a small society, cooperative behaviours are enforced and exploitative behaviours are punished, partly, through repetitive interactions. People cooperate now in expectation that others will cooperate in the future. Similarly, a short term gain by exploiting others have to be weighed against future retribution for doing so. This is easily understood by thinking of your interaction in office (or college) or with your family. Cooperative behaviours are generally preferred while rude ones tend to be avoided if possible. You are less inclined to cut queue at the cafeteria if the people there are your office mates that you will be meeting every day.

On the road however, there is no repetition. Driving is mostly a one-off event. If you cut into the lane of another person rudely, you do not have to fear to be treated similarly by the same person in the future because the possibility of that happening is very slim. The individual gain from being rude and exploiting others in a one-off event provides the incentives for every driver to prefer bad behaviours from good ones, despite the possibility that the cooperative outcome could actually be better off for everyone. In the formal parlance, being rude is in fact the dominant strategy for this prisoner's dilemma-type of situation.

2. Shame

The second reason, which is intimately linked to the first, is shame. Norms of a society are normally evolved such that cooperative behaviours could be enforced without credible repetitive interactions. Bad manners are frowned upon and usually the mechanism for enforcement against them is shame. If you cut queue in a post-office, you have to face, personally, the loathing disapproval of everyone else, even though they are strangers. This is normally sufficient disincentive for most people to not cut queue.

Unfortunately for driving, not only is everyone practically wearing a mask in the form of a Proton Waja or a Honda City, the interactions are also normally very brief for the shame effect to kick in.

So what can we do?

Formal enforcement of driving politely is an exercise in futility. The cost and complexity of enforcement will most probably be huge and with a good possibility of causing more traffic disruptions rather than less.

Furthermore, civic-mindedness is not something that should be instilled through external means – it should come from within all of us. After half a century of nationhood, it will be great to see our society having the collective will and maturity to drive with courtesy.



benkaiser said...

Man is self-serving with his/her interests coming first, as prescribed in rational economics.

Just like what Han Fei Zi said over 2000 years ago, that man is bad by nature and therefore, regulation and enforcement are needed to shape the "proper" behaviour as demanded by the state, or perhaps, society.

Chewxy said...

Ah... so that's the bunny thingy :D

zcer said...

Let's do bring in evolution again!

The first reason has to do with "tit for tat with retribution". An evolutionary stable state where cooperation is rewarded with cooperation. But violations are punished.

The second reason has to do with the the sharing of information amongst those who cooperate about those who do not. In short: social reputation. Not directly though, coz shame evolved to make the individual comply with social expectations. But yeah.

So what how would economics approach this issue? Put in an incentive system? You're right, external enforcement is too costly.

Perhaps we can exploit our biology?
Perhaps a website where we list license plates of those who behave badly? Or maybe those cars that use colored lights to express the mood of the driver? It would be quite a spectacle to see all cars flashing red with anger at the transgressors. Maybe a "boo" sound in addition to the "honk"? Imagine all the good cars booing at the bad cars! LOL It is also quite probably that in the future advances in production technology will allow low cost customizations for each individual car. Then, we can recognize those bad drivers.

But really it is quite possible for those who don't cut lanes to just not let any of those who took the emergency lane to cut in. In fact, evolution also put something like this into our psychology. The punishment of those who fail to punish. Those who let cars using emergency lane to recut in are no better than those who used the emergency lanes.


Elanor said...


Haha, creative examples you got there on car customisations. Might actually work!

The problem with linking social evolutionary processes with driving is that the former requires repetitive interaction of some sort to have effective and credible enforcement of cooperative behaviour.

Unfortunately rude driving is really mostly a faceless one-off sort of game. You can extent the blame to those who do not punish deviant behaviours, and further blame those who do not punish those who do not punish ad infinitum.

But the question is, in the first place, how do you punish bad behaviour when it comes to rude driving?

(It is tempting to think that we could have everyone lobby for a law that allow all drivers to carry shotguns and shoot idiotic rude drivers...*daydream daydream*)

But if you place rude-driving in the wider context of civic-mindedness however, there is a solution to this problem - for politeness to be formed as norm - in economics, we can call this social capital. Unfortunately, this is a long and gradual process.

But we can always start somewhere - I never drive rudely, despite being called a pushover by my friends most of the time.

zcer said...

Civic-mindedness would seem to be that which would reduce the problem of rude drivers. But civic-mindedness is like culture. A westerner exposing her body is not uncultured. Because her religion is not that of Islamic societies. It is not that Malaysians are not civic-minded. Courteous driving is simply not part of their civic culture.

The end result would be civic-mindedness as you see it. But we must first ingrain in social consciousness what is wrong and why. In the long term, we would want everybody to think that using the emergency lanes is simply wrong.

I propose short-term intermediate step to the long term. That is to think of those who let those using emergency lane to cut back in, as responsible and wrong too. People should feel it is a moral imperative to block those emergency lane users from cutting back in. That would make those who use emergency lanes to recognize that others really think that what they are doing is wrong.

Nobody is immoral. Being moral is simply human nature. But WHAT is moral is cultural. The moral brain circuitry of the rude drivers are already there. We just need to get it to realize that what they are doing is wrong.

Anonymous said...

having you tried blocking people from cutting back from the emergency lane?...

it can be quite difficult, not to mention dangerous.

zcer said...


All that is needed is for the bad drivers to register our anger and disapproval of them. We don't have to succeed at blocking them. But I admit I haven't thought about that, since I don't drive. So thanks. But you need to get to the meat of the argument sometimes.

Anonymous said...

and to add to that, if you prevent a road bully from cutting in you might be beaten up. its better to leave this to the lawful authorities....

i've seen a lady slapped for trying to prevent an anxious driver, trying to escape a jam, from cutting in.

Anonymous said...

then you gave a bad proposition.

Elanor said...


Given your interest, I suggest that you read more into Partha Dasgupta's work on social capital if you have not already done so. Google him for more of his work.

He is a very brilliant professor who taught me game theory back in Camb.

Anyway, you are right in saying that punishment is important in ensuring that bad behaviours are not repeated, not just on the deviants, but also those who do not punish the deviants. You can in fact, formally model this interaction where meta-punishment is allowed.

My point is, however, in the case of driving, it is lacking both repetitive and personal interactions to form credible form of punishment.


zcer said...

Fine but you seem to have what i call the "debating consciousness". Where you rack up points for nitpicking. Where somebody has to win or lose in the end.

I meant argument is a looser sense. This is a discussion ok?

There is a cost or risk to everything. What you are suggesting is akin to not donating to charity at all because they use money inefficiently, or that they could be scams. Who is being cynical here (and a couple of blogposts back)?

Why is punishment of those who fail to punish important? Because like those birds who don't groom others when groomed, birds who groom known freeloaders are themselves freeloading. The system requires that freeloaders be punished, even though punishment comes at a cost to the individual. Otherwise the system breaks down. You are proposing that the system be destroyed really. Not that there is much of a system right now... But it is precisely people like you that prevents us from having one.

zcer said...


I was just EXPLAINING the problem with evolutionary psychology. I thought I was supporting all that you said in your blogpost really!

But in addition, I was trying to show how civic-consciousness is not simply a property that ppl have or dont have (read my 3rd previous comment.

I was proposing the meta-punishment not to actually implement. We don't have a 1st-level punishment in the first place!

Instead, I propose exploiting the biology of our morality. To make the rude driver's brain RECOGNIZE (not only consciously) that what she is doing is wrong. So it's merely using our psychology of punishment and meta-punishment to more effectively ingrain good driving in our civic-consciousness. We only have to think (and feel) that bad driving, and not thinking (or feeling) of bad driving as wrong, is wrong. One way to do this is to simply teach it at driving school.

Anyway, thanks for the recommendation. But I'm really just interested in everything. I just hope i have the time to read that!

Elanor said...


Erm, I was actually agreeing with you, and pointed you to a formal work that validates your argument on the importance of meta-punishment in a social evolutionary framework, which I earnestly thought that you might be interested in.

But the point of my post is that driving is more like one-off prisoner's dilemma rather than a repeated prisoners' dilemma situation which makes the cooperative outcome harder to achieve.


Elanor said...

Ok... now I am totally confused.

zewt said...

i think i just found a candidate for my thinking blogger award in you...

zcer said...

no no! i thank you really for the link. I really want to read it. But I want to read so many things you see. So I just hope I have the time!

I see that I am horrible at explaining things though! I'll give up for now. Anyway, great post and great discussion. Thankyou everybody!

zcer said...

oh wait! I get it, that post was meant for the nitpicker! not you. apologies for the confusion. LOL

Elanor said...

Haha, I get it too now.

Anonymous said...

zcer said: I see that I am horrible at explaining things though!

nitpicker: agreed

Anonymous said...

zcer: Fine but you seem to have what i call the "debating consciousness". Where you rack up points for nitpicking. Where somebody has to win or lose in the end.
I meant argument is a looser sense. This is a discussion ok?

You certainly came to that conclusion yourself. I didnt want to classify you as a looser...its just that i didnt agree with what you said....thats all....nobody is a looser here at elanor's blog.

zcer said...


My problem with you is not that you disagree with me. But that your disagreements are about such inconsequential things. I just wish you would choose to contribute to the discussion instead. Please!

Anonymous said...

ok ok zcer....peace

one last question.....why cant you drive or dont you drive?

im just curious....

zcer said...

Because they killed the electric car!

I will drive nothing but an electric. Not even hybrids! Actually I'm still learning how to drive. The documentary is great btw, you should watch it.