Between law and order

Order isn’t merely a function of strong laws and strict enforcement. Instead, the best systems are designed to make orderly behaviour easier.

The road systems of a country offer an excellent example. In India, a recurrent problem on highways is slow moving trucks driving on the lanes meant for fast traffic. My dad pointed to one such truck and asked a traffic cop why he didn’t stop the truck and penalize the driver. The cop merely shrugged his shoulders in exasperation.

“We cannot do anything about that, sir.”

Ensuring safe and smooth driving goes well beyond following traffic rules. It relies on vehicles following traffic norms – stopping for oncoming traffic on narrow roads, slow moving traffic sticking to appropriate lanes, overtaking from the correct side and so on. And as the hapless cop indicated, it is often difficult to enforce road norms and etiquette through penalties. What you need, instead, are nudges.


Nudges are features in an environment that induce people to behave well. On the roads, nudges can take the form of intelligent signs. The roads in Scotland offer several examples of good nudging. Take this Edinburgh street, for example, where the speed limit for a particular road is painted directly on the street itself. Such a sign serves two purposes – it is far easier for drivers to notice than on a board by the side. Further, several European tourists, who are used to driving on the opposite side of the road, would see those numbers upside down if they are driving on the wrong side. Painted arrow-marks and bus lanes in a different colour are all excellent examples of good nudging. As a result, people are awarded with more orderly traffic without the need for constant policing.

When a setup (such as Indian highways) doesn’t work too well, it is often not the individuals (drivers or traffic cops) that are to blame. It is usually the system’s design. Slow trucks drive occupy faster lanes in India because the slow lanes on most highways are either in a state of disrepair or random blockages (with barricades or stopped traffic) which requires heavy trucks to switch lanes often. A better designed system would make it easier for drivers of slow trucks to drive on the slow lanes.

To ensure order, the law and its stringent enforcement is often insufficient. What we need are well designed systems with nudges and cues to make good behaviour easier.

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