July 8, 2019 - Robert John Hadfield
M.A.D. on the Street
Behind the Wheel in Kathmandu
This last week I was in Kathmandu, Nepal. It was the second time I have visited there. Kathmandu is a large sprawling urban area that has the distinctive look and feel of a third world country. Garbage everywhere, old buildings that look like they could fall over with a strong breeze, animals of various types running wild, shops and living quarters that give a new definition to “hole in the wall,” and crumbling infrastructure.
One of the things that stood out to me on my first visit was the traffic. Not just the amount, but the order within the chaos. Cars, vans, trucks, motorcycles, scooters, bicycles and a wide variety of unidentifiable vehicles. People walking everywhere and, believe it or not, cows wandering among the mayhem.
At first you are overwhelmed by the amount of traffic, it is truly an assault on your senses. And as you are overwhelmed you begin to notice something very odd, there are no traffic signs or signals anywhere. You might find one police officer motioning traffic in some random intersection, but no one seems to be paying him any heed. And everywhere else there is nothing. Of course they have intersections just like we do in the United States, but there are no signals creating order. Other than the understanding that you should drive on the left side of the road, the idea of a right-of-way seems to be completely lost.
You would assume that in such an environment people would be crashing into each other all the time, but you would be wrong. The lack of order seems to actually produce more careful, conscientious and skilled drivers. Cars drive past each other through alleys where they literally have centimeters between them. Scooters and motorcycles drive between cars and seem to ignore any sense of lines in the road. Cars regularly pass each other using oncoming traffic lanes in the heart of the city. And yet you never see an upset driver, you never hear yelling or cursing, and the short beeps of horns are used for communication not frustration.
In Kathmandu you will find small driving ranges all over the place where people can practice driving. These ranges are focused on the skills needed in narrow passages, tight turns and being completely defensive. In the end everyone seems to understand that their survival on the road means being patient and working together. It reminds me a little of the old Mutually Assured Destruction (M.A.D.) principle between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Both countries had the ability to completely destroy the other, which made both countries cautious and patient.
Most people from the United States, including myself, would be anxious in that environment. We think lights, signs and rules create a more safe environment. But in truth, it seems to create a false sense of security. It only works if everyone is obeying the rules. On US roads we get upset if someone isn’t obeying the rules. When there is a wreck on a US road, our only discussion is whose fault it was. It’s an adversarial, and sometimes aggressive, relationship.
But in Nepal it’s a completely different mindset. Drivers aren’t worried as much about rules or who is at fault, they are worried about survival. Everyone seems to give deference to everyone else.
Rules can create a sense of order in a society, but they don’t necessarily create the results you want. They create the sense that we don’t have to care about the people around us; so we often don’t. We pay less attention to what is going on around us, and focus on what “should” be happening based on the rules. And the results are often deadly.
There are other applications for this principle in our lives whether it’s business, friends or family. All of us, on some level or another, get wrapped up in rules, standards and expectations. Rather than meeting someone where they are, we often focus on where they should be. We judge others based on the rules or our society. Rules that will often be meaningless a hundred years from now. We become frustrated because someone doesn’t meet a standard set by ourselves or our culture. But it seems that long-term happiness will more likely come if we meet people where they are and learn to navigate the road in a way that gives everyone room to move. If we recognize that each of us, in our own way, is a disappointment to someone else’s standards. We would all be better off if we would learn to be patient accordingly.