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No Right on Red February 10, 2012

Posted by Jason in Daily PM.
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Here in Australia, I realize every day how different the culture is than in the U.S.  That may seem obvious, but it’s amazing how quickly one becomes accustomed to a new place.

In the U.S., each state has its own rules of the road, but it turns out that we have a federal law which requires states to allow a right turn on red (as part of an energy conservation plan).  I can’t speak for it’s effectiveness related to energy savings, but it clearly keeps traffic moving.

Here in Australia (which, of course, drives on the left), a left turn on red is strictly prohibited.  Now, there is nothing inherently wrong with either system, and one can’t fault a society for doing something just because “it’s always been done that way.”  We all do it.  However, it reminds me that of all the small cultural differences between the U.S. and Australia (not to mention the rest of the world), it seems our relationship to our own rules and laws is particularly American.

Perhaps there is something cultural about our need for control, or even perhaps our acknowledgment of preferential treatment.  In Australia, there is much more deference to authority and law (I won’t say respect, since it seems to come with some degree of indignation).

Americans seem quite comfortable with challenging authority and even openly flaunting the law – within reason.  But it’s even more than that.  In a business context, we have “rules” of all sorts that create corporate cultures, policies, and procedures.  Americans in general seem more open to challenging these norms and accepting the outcomes, with one caveat: they don’t want to get in trouble for doing so.  In other words, Americans seem more willing to accept the explicit consequences of their actions, but not so willing to accept social dishonor or punishment for undertaking the challenge in the first place.

For example, if the U.S. did not allow right turns on red lights, I believe more Americans than Australians would make the turn anyway.  The American would face the consequences if he caused an accident, but would probably attempt to argue his way out of a ticket if he was simply pulled over for the infraction.  The Australian would accept the ticket with grace probably feel some shame.  On the contrary, the American would be more observant for police next time…

There may be something deeper here as well.  Like Americans, Australians deeply value the idea of “a fair go.”  Everyone is treated with equality and respect, as in America.  New rules and laws, though never perfect of course, are assumed to support this notion.  On the other hand, while Americans feel very strongly that laws are necessary for a functioning society, they probably think first, “how can I find a way to make this law NOT apply to me?”

From helicopter parents to occupiers, greedy corporate heads to corrupt government officials, it seems that we have built a society that depends to some degree on breaking at least a few laws every day.

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Comments»

1. Guy Leven-Marcon - February 15, 2012

Hi Jason, In Australia they obey the rules, but have no respect for authority. In South Africa, we bend all the rules, but have respect for authority. I suspect that the USA is somewhere in the middle. Guy

Jason - February 16, 2012

It may depend on what rules are in question. As I watched a couple of skateboarders cruise past a “No Skateboarding” sign (as, of course, happens wherever you have skateboarders) I wondered if we create many of our rules with the knowledge that they would be very difficult to enforce. But by instituting them, we “reserve the right” to bust someone for the infraction, especially if they are doing something else that bothers us. In other words, we clothe the regulations in guises of “public safety” or “common good” when, in reality, the letter of the law is not what concerns us, but the spirit.

Quite often in the U.S., we depend on society and authority to turn a blind eye to infractions (intentional or not) because it’s difficult to go through the day without violating some rule or another. You start to have ethical problems when this habit extends to rules that actually mean something.

Perhaps in the U.S., we challenge authority and like making rules for other people to follow…since by making rules, we become the authority we would rather challenge.


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