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Saturday, Nov. 11, 2006


The mysterious red light heeded by few

Big news for our island: They've put in a traffic light! Now, I've always been under the impression that there must be oncoming traffic to justify a traffic light. But hey, this is Japan, maybe they drive differently here.

News photo
SOMEONE RUNNING the red light on Shiraishi Island AMY CHAVEZ PHOTO

In fact, on our island most people don't drive at all. With a population of just 700 and only one road that goes around the perimeter of the island, just a few dozen people drive and those people are the ones with businesses who have goods to transport to the ferry port and back.

Another reason people don't have cars here is that most of the houses on the island aren't accessible by car. The houses are linked by a network of footpaths that not even the smallest car could get through.

Besides, who wants a car anyway? There's no place to drive to, except the other side of the island, which is only a 15-minute walk.

And now -- a traffic light! Never has a traffic light generated so much attention.

Some people made special trips from the other side of the island just to see it. As soon as I heard about it, I jumped into my cow truck and went to see it right away.

When I arrived, it was red, with a lit-up digital number counting down the seconds I still had to wait before it turned blue (and I do mean blue-neon blue!). Very slick. I was in awe.

But I was also relieved to see that it was just a construction traffic light with a temporary, two-month long installment.

The purpose of the light is to prevent two cars, traveling in opposite directions, from trying to pass this construction area at the same time.

Yet the likelihood of two people on the island driving at the same time is practically nil, especially when most people arrive at their destination within 30 seconds. Before they put this light in, that is. Now it is possible to be stopped at a red light for longer than your entire journey would take.

Which is why no one stops at the traffic light. As a matter of fact, I'm pretty sure this traffic light has created more turmoil than safety.

There have been various reactions to it, ranging from the skeptical who run the red light every time, to the resentful who run the red light every time, to those who think it's a joke and run the red light every time.

A few people wait patiently because they've got small children in the car and feel they need to teach them to always obey traffic signals. But still, no one understands why there is a traffic light.

Here are some possible answers:

Road favoritism -- Construction crews are currently installing a safety net over some rocks on the side of the road and to do this, they have had to narrow the road to one-way.

Despite the fact that much of the 5-km road on our island is only wide enough for one car anyway, and is adorned with two-way mirrors at bends, the construction crew is showing favoritism to this part of the road.

Otherwise, there is a much easier solution than putting a traffic light in: Model the road after Tokyo's JR Yamanote Line so that people have to drive in only one direction around the island.

Then, just to keep everyone's wheels aligned properly, we could make it one-way in the other direction the next day.

It's a good neighbor campaign. Figuring that if we passed each other on the road, we'd have to wave hello to each other, the traffic light could have been put in to foster good relations.

I kind of like this idea and suggest even having a picnic lunch ready on your side so that when someone finally does come through from the other side, you can treat the driver to some sushi.

But the truth is that, no matter how long you wait on one side of the light, no one else is going to come from the opposite direction. So that couldn't be it.

The local policeman has to reach his quota on traffic violations and is trying to ticket those who run red lights. This would be viable except that no one has even seen the policeman since his baby was born, so that couldn't be it.

It's an eye test to check for colorblindness. Highly possible. And if it's true, they've proved one thing: Almost everyone on the island is colorblind.

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