The rigour impulse

Eric Crampton has an amusing anecdote about grass-eaters:

The road by our house is currently being torn up and rebuilt to lay a new sewer line consequent to the earthquake. Half the street is blocked off with heavy equipment and big holes.

At the traffic circle to turn down my road, there’s a big “No Right Turn” sign. As you enter the street, navigating between a whole pile of road cones that limit entry, there are three signs. The first says “Local Resident Access Only”. The second says “No Through Road”. The third says “Road Closed”.

After the turn for a small cul-de-sac […], there’s a more formidable set of barricades with the sign, again “No Exit”, and a narrow gap through the cones to allow access for residents. At the end of my block, there’s a set of barricades preventing through traffic from continuing […].

I watched one car do a U-Turn at that final barricade every 5 minutes on Saturday. On Sunday, I watched the Number 5 Bus do a U-Turn there too. It wasn’t gracefully executed.

Big holes, heavy equipment, four signs, and two sets of barricades ought to be enough to warn off even the most unaware of drivers, no?  And yet they keep coming to the end of the accessible road, apparently unpersuaded by the “Road Closed” signs and heavy construction equipment.  Dr. Crampton advances a hypothesis: many of these drivers are following GPS navigation units, and are only incidentally concerned with whether the actual road upon which they are driving agrees with the holy writ of the talking black box.

Many — perhaps most — bloggers with such a hypothesis would write a quick, perhaps witty, post along the lines of “Haha lol people are stupid.”

Others — like, perhaps, me — would generalize the point to a finger-wagging tale of situational awareness, perhaps using the term “grass-eater”.

Crampton, on the other hand, properly separates correlation from causation and writes:

It would be mildly fun to have one person sit at the traffic circle and count the proportion of people approaching the circle with GPS devices on the dashboard and compare it with the proportion of folks making U-turns with GPS. Rather a few folks making U-turns seem to have them, but I don’t know the relevant base rate.

(Emphasis added.)

Of course, even if every driver who neglects the signs, barricades, and &c. does so whilst paying slavish attention to a GPS device, it does little to show that GPS devices make you stupid if every driver who doesn’t neglect the signs and &c. has a GPS device as well.

And this is why I read econoblogs.


8 Responses to “The rigour impulse”

  1. 1 bc
    August 30, 2011 at 10:58

    Grass-eaters? I know a bit about those since I have a herd of them outside. They obey barriers they’ve been trained to respect. This tells me that road barriers need to send a 5kV shock to drivers and they’d obey the barriers, too.

    • August 30, 2011 at 11:08

      A 5kV shock, you say? This merits consideration. Perhaps the corrective impulse could be delivered through the GPS unit — or, failing that, a smartphone in skin contact.

      • 3 bc
        August 30, 2011 at 11:42

        That GPS idea could work. You get hit with a 5 kV shock and you aren’t disobeying road barriers any more. NZ is full of electric fence – they designed the stuff in the first place – so surely Crampton could rig up something.

  2. 4 Not Sure
    August 31, 2011 at 19:15

    Before being too hard on the people ignoring the signs, I’d want to know a little more about how the signs are actually used. Where I used to live, “Road Closed” signs were commonly put up on road construction projects where the road wasn’t really closed- just being worked on, but you could still get through. Lots of people ignore the signs even though there are certainly times when they are right, and a u-turn is required.

  3. August 31, 2011 at 19:47

    Is it GPS blindness – or are they just ‘pushing the elevator button’?

    For more than a decade now my husband has worked on the whateverteenth floor of a big building in a large metro area. Every workday he enters the lobby, presses the button, waits for the elevator to arrive, then rides it up to his floor. He is a man of more than average intelligence and a long distance runner (so the stairs are a viable option).

    If he pushes the button tomorrow and the elevator doesn’t come do you think he will (a) immediately give up and take the stairs or (b) escalate into a button mashing frenzy before giving up and going for another cup of Starbucks?

    Habits are directly analogous to inertia. They both represent the tendency of objects (or living creatures) to resist any change. And time is to habit what mass is to inertia so if those people have been taking that route for a while (especially if they’ve been doing it mindlessly, which is the habit equivalent of a high rate of velocity) – they can have an enormous amount of habitual inertia to overcome.

    FWIW this can be a big issue with dogs too. A dog that’s been allowed to develop bad habits will typically ‘push the elevator button’ for some time before giving up and trying a new strategy. That’s why I have a ‘Keep Calm and Carry On” poster on the wall of the training room.

    E fence is a good idea too though. We’ve got a lot of it here in flyover country and if it can hold in a herd of smart, hungry, pushy adolescent hogs it should certainly do the trick for a mob of suburban grass eaters.

  4. 6 Larry
    September 4, 2011 at 05:20

    Depending on how the signs are deployed, and temporarily ignoring “GPS Blindness,” this may be a statement about the incompetence/sloppiness/laziness of either government, road contractors, or both. It is routine here to see such routing signs in place days before any work commences, and for days – if not weeks – after completion. One quickly learns to disbelieve them.

  5. 7 Chris C.
    September 5, 2011 at 12:40

    In the absense of GPS counting, I tend to agree with Larry. After Irene passed my area, a moderately-sized road (used as a quick route between two larger roads) was blocked by a fallen tree. I was taking a walk through the area to see what was damaged, and decided to run a little test. The fallen tree was a short distance past a low hill, just enough that drivers could not see the downed tree, but not close enough to crash into unless going double the speed limit (25 mph). I stood on the roadside and waved my arms in the traditional flagging-down manner. Out of ten cars, five stopped, five drove on by. The only correlation among the test subjects (yes, the sample is way too small, no controls, etc, etc), was that those that stopped were male, those that drove by (and had to turn around) were female. Yes, correlation is not causation. But I am at a loss as to why the sample, small as it was, broke down that way. Or, it could just be random.

    • September 5, 2011 at 12:51

      Oh sure, it’s often rational for drivers to ignore (or evaluate and disregard) warning signs, especially regarding construction. It’s less usual for rational drivers to be able to ignore large concentrations of heavy construction equipment and bigass holes in the road they’re expecting to take.

      As for your gender breakdown: were the women driving alone? Consider the personal security implications of (a) a man stopping to see what the guy waving his arms by the side of the road wants and (b) a woman doing the same.

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