Fact#4. Why are green crosswalk lights so short in the U.S.?


Bishop: JinK san, why did the chicken cross the road?

JinK: Chicken? What are you talking about?

Bishop: It’s an American joke.

JinK: Oh, OK. I don’t know. Why did the chicken cross the road?

Bishop: To get to the other side.

JinK: …… is that the joke?

Bishop: Yes… it’s actually an anti-joke. You expect a punch line, then there is none.

JinK: You Americans have a unique sense of humor.

Bishop: Yes we do. That’s one of the more famous American jokes we all learn as children. But, speaking of

crossing the road, something has been bothering me lately…

JinK: What’s that?

Bishop: Something doesn’t feel quite right about the crosswalk lights in Japan.

JinK: Ah, you mean how the lights in the U.S. flash the red “Don’t Walk” but in Japan they flash the green “Walk” sign.

Bishop: Well, that is one difference. But actually the part that feels strange to me is the timing of how the signals change.

JinK: Really? I feel that the timing of the signals in the U.S. is strange.

Here, the “Walk” sign is only up for a few seconds before the “Don’t Walk” sign starts to flash in red.

In Japan, the green symbol lasts longer, so you get 10 to 20 seconds before it starts flashing.

I guess it doesn’t matter so much, since in America nobody obeys the signals anyway.

Bishop: Yes, that’s true. But the total length of time it takes the light to change from green to red is almost the same

(though of course it varies from place to place)

The biggest difference is that the length of time the signal flashes is longer in the U.S. than it is in Japan.

In the U.S., you still have plenty of time to cross the street when it starts flashing, but in Japan you are forced

to either run across or give up and turn back. (please see the video below)

It feels like it could be dangerous for older people. Besides, I don’t like having to run across all the time.

JinK: Now that you mention it, yes I suppose that’s true. But in Japan if an older person was crossing the street,

I’m sure the cars would wait until they finished crossing.

There is also a positive side to the solid green phase being longer. In Japan, even if you’re a bit farther away

from the crosswalk, you can still make it into the intersection in time if you run a little.

In the U.S., just as you think “Oh it’s green” it starts flashing and you have to wait until it turns green again.

Bishop: That’s an interesting point. Indeed, I do see a lot of people running to cross the street in Japan.

JinK: One reason is that Japanese people obey the signals even if there are no cars coming. In the U.S.,

almost everyone ignores the signals, don’t they?

People just think, “Well, no cars are coming so it’s OK to cross.” Sometimes traffic cops will even tell you

to cross while it’s red.

I guess the upside to this way of thinking is that you don’t have to waste time.

More than that though, I’m curious as to why the green signal lasts for such a short time in the U.S.

Bishop: Hmmm, I think this may have something to do with the lawyers and different views on personal responsibility.

I was wondering about this too, so I actually looked up the laws in both countries.

In the U.S., the phase of the green walk sign must be at least 7 seconds, or 4 seconds in special cases.

So, pretty short. Then, the flashing red stage must be long enough so that someone walking at 4 feet (1.2 meters)

per second has enough time to fully cross.

If it’s an area with more elderly pedestrians, that speed is adjusted to 3 or 3.5 feet (0.9 – 1.05 meters) per second.

So, the responsibility is on the state to ensure you have enough time to safely cross the street.

As a result, the solid green phase of the signal gets shorter.

I can imagine someone in the U.S. suing the government if they didn’t have enough time to cross the street

and got hit by a car. So I think this is an instance of the government being conservative to avoid lawsuits.

JinK: I see. So the timing of the signal is to ensure safety and avoid lawsuits. Interesting.

Bishop: In contrast, I couldn’t find any similar regulations in Japan, but I did find laws about what pedestrians have to do.

When the crosswalk light starts flashing, the law says that “Pedestrians may not begin crossing, and

pedestrians already crossing the street must quickly finish crossing or stop crossing and return back.”

So the responsibility to keep oneself safe falls on the pedestrian in Japan.

JinK: That is a big difference – whether responsibility lies with the government or with the individual.

It does seem that Americans tend to be more lawsuit-happy.

Bishop: Yes, it’s nice to be protected by such a strong legal system, but it does lead to waste and excessive

administrative procedures.

A few years ago, I remember reading an article about a chicken who was fined $54 for jaywalking.

JinK: That is ridiculous. How could you fine a chicken for anything?

Bishop: Actually they charged the chicken’s owners for letting out what is supposed to be a domesticated animal,

creating a traffic hazard.

JinK: I guess you can’t blame the chicken, it just wanted to get to the other side.

Bishop: Nice one! JinK-san, you’ve mastered the most important American joke.

JinK: Eh? Was that funny? So that’s how you tell an American joke. Heh, you learn something new every day.

Fact #4  In the U.S., the green phase of the crosswalk signal is short and the flashing red phase is long to ensure pedestrians have enough time to cross safely

by Bishop & JinK

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