Traffic Culture in Estonia: What Reflex Reflectors and Saint Christopher Have in Common

Natalia Hoffman is an independent researcher into the visual communication of Estonia with the Estophilus Programme, an exchange student in Tartu from Aarhus University, Denmark, where she’s finishing her MA in Cognitive Semiotics, and a beetroot juice drinker big on detective stories who dresses in secondhand shops and watches TV for the sake of advertising. This is her second instalment in the series:

Case Studies on the Estonian Universe of Visual Meaning 

I remember a few years back I was on a bike mission in London, trying to cover some 15 kilometres during a rush hour in the afternoon. It was summertime. The roads were busy and an accident ready to happen seemed to lurk at every crossroad, so an anxious companion of mine decided to cycle on the pavement for the safety of it. Five minutes later and the polite policemen, whom without fail one encounters in London, stop her and write her down for posing a threat to pedestrians. They write me down along with her (I cycled on the road, but the two of us were sisters in handlebars and so on). A warning was issued and the intricate mechanisms of road safety laid bare to us. Ever since that moment I have become slightly disturbed by the sight of people cycling on the pavements. You know, it’s one of those primed responses – just like alcoholics in treatment who are subjected to a minor electric shock when drinking, so that they associate drinking with pain, I too get a twitch every time I see someone cycling on the pavement.

A few weeks into my stay in Estonia and I almost had a head-on collision with a cyclist, I witnessed two cyclist-pedestrian knockdowns and thus inferred that bicycle users generally prefer pavements over streets. I started wondering what and why. I snooped around and found out that according to Estonian law:

§ 32. Restrictions to traffic by cyclists and drivers of Segways, mini-mopeds and mopeds

(1) Cyclists and drivers of Segways, mini-mopeds and mopeds shall not:
1) ride or drive on the pavement, except for drivers of Segways, cyclists aged below 13 years and up to two persons accompanying them, as well as cyclists with a small child in a child’s chair and other cyclists if riding on the carriageway would be seriously inhibited due to the condition of the carriageway.

Now, this is curious because what ‘seriously inhibited’ means is hard to determine. Some claim an antelope attacking a cyclist should be included in the inhibition category…

… but that happened only once and in South Africa, Estonia’s neighbour by longitude – some 15,403 kilometres south from Tartu – a very long bike ride away. Locally though, the lack of cycling lanes certainly inhibits road use for cyclists. So for their own safety, the cyclists, children and adults alike commonly take to the pavements, which explains why in return I haven’t seen any car-bike crashes here.

Reflex reflectors for pedestrian visibility

What about pedestrians then, a kind reader might ask, as unkind readers are generally known not to concern themselves with such things. As it happens, this year Estonia celebrates the two-year anniversary of the introduction of a law conjured up to avail the pedestrians’ safety. The law has every citizen travelling by foot at night or in conditions of inadequate visibility wear a reflex reflector. These should be attached to one’s outerwear or a handbag, or else a €400 fine. Not many people have €400 to spare, so everybody wears them (Okay, according to official statistics 86% children and 65% adults do – which is two out of three adults and thus more than the total number of those with voting rights who took part in Estonia’s last Parliamentary elections in 2011). This is how serious people are about their reflectors. I took pictures for proof.

People wearing reflex reflectors in Estonia.

They reflect light, alright! Photos by Natalia Hoffman

To get people hooked on the idea, the government even distributed a free batch of reflex reflectors amongst 50,000 lucky citizens. The remaining 1,250,000 of the Estonian population could acquire them at a low cost in supermarkets and kiosks – the reflectors are broadly available. Interestingly, the new law created an opportunity for new businesses to arise, so that now various different kinds and shapes are sold, as shown in the pictures above. It has also given rise to creative endeavours on the side of pedestrians themselves, as some Estonians alter the reflectors’ look to suit their more refined tastes. Have these things become somewhat of a fashion accessory, I wonder?

In either case, the main idea behind this law and its execution has been to increase pedestrians’ visibility on the roads (and pavements) and improve their safety as traffic participants while decreasing the number of accidents.

But does wearing a reflex reflector really work as intended? I looked into statistics for answers and made a compelling discovery. It turns out that making reflex reflectors mandatory to wear as of 2011 has not made the number of road accidents decrease, if anything, compared to 2010, the numbers in all three categories which the Estonian Road Administration monitors – namely, traffic accidents, persons killed, persons injured – rose. The statistics for 2012 are not publicly available yet, but the ERR News (Estonian Public Broadcasting) article published last week states that in 2012 total “pedestrian fatalities bucked the trend, rising by five”.

Overall, the number of accidents in the last thirteen years has been falling and rising with no regular pattern, but on a general scale the situation has improved. It’s just that as difficult as it might be to admit it (in light of how serious the issue of road accidents is and how much public money has been spent on promoting reflectors), there is no proof that reflex reflectors actually make any difference in road safety at all.

Saint Christopher and hand sanitiser

There seem to be two reasons behind the dubious effectiveness of the reflex reflectors. One, pedestrians killed on the roads might have simply forgotten or deemed it unnecessary to wear them, thus becoming invisible to drivers. Two, the discipline of road users has worsened, whilst inattentive and careless behaviour is on the rise.

Now, the question which begs an answer is this: Have the reflex reflectors served the interests of Estonian society in any way other than glossing and diversifying people’s coats and handbags? After all, the discrepancy between the high number of those who wear them and the steady increase in the general number of accidents ever since they were reinforced by the law is rather curious. In thinking of an explanation, I am inclined to draw an analogy between a reflex reflector and portable bottles of hand sanitiser.

Yes, hand sanitisers first introduced on the market in late 1990s in the noble cause of fighting bacteria we’re exposed to daily as we travel on the bus, touch money, use public toilets, or libraries for that matter. Hand sanitisers are designed to keep us germ-free and healthy. The truth is, the more sanitiser you use, the less immune you become to bacteria, but of course the companies selling these products won’t tell you that (more on that in Martin Lindstrom’s book Brand-washed). After all, what a hand sanitiser really does, it frees us from the fear of possible danger, it recalibrates our judgment and it makes us place our trust someplace other than in ourselves…

Exactly the same as what reflex reflectors do. It should not come as a surprise, then, that their popular presence hasn’t had a discernible effect on diminishing the number of traffic misfortunes. Instead, reflectors are more like a talisman, of the kind of a medallion depicting Saint Christopher (the patron saint of travellers) that Catholic drivers use as tokens of good travel luck and in a superstitious belief that it will spare them from accidents.

Unable to find out the exact percentage of fatalities involving drivers who are fond of Saint Christopher, with regard to the reflex reflectors I am led to conclude that transferring the burden of road safety from a human to a 4-centimetres-in-diameter object might prompt one to irrational inattentiveness and carelessness. Entrusting one’s life in the powers of either a small piece of metal or a piece of plastic has the right to work out only if you’re Frodo in the Lord of the Rings or if you have a pacemaker implanted in your chest. But when the rest of us rely on the reflectors to guard and protect us whilst in traffic, this sure can generate a warm feeling of security, but it can also create an illusion that if I’m being seen, I don’t have to see. This could explain the case of those killed on the roads despite the fact that they were wearing a reflector. But how about those who were not, and what about the drivers? Are they not to blame?, one might ask.

Mirror neuron systems affect behaviour

Well now, the discovery of mirror neuron systems in human brains might shed some light on this problem. As it turns out, in social interaction situations people are subconsciously very sensitive to the moods and actions of others, so much so that they imitate them to a significant degree. The mirror neurons are believed to lie at the bottom of this phenomenon, which can be observed for example in the involuntary alignment of walking pace and style amongst pedestrians (see Helbing, 1992; Burstedde et al., 2001; Sakuma et al. 2005), or in contagious laughter and contagious yawning.

The same might account for the spread of people’s less attentive and more detached attitudes encouraged by the use of reflex reflectors. And because the majority of Estonian pedestrians wear them, these attitudes might have also been subconsciously picked up by the rest of the road users, including reflector-less travellers, drivers and cyclists. (As the above argument is impossible to verify, it is advised to treat it as an educated guess).

Thus, believing in the power of reflectors might have conversely rendered the nation powerless to the increase in road accidents. What does the dear reader have to say?

See also Natalia’s first instalment in the series: The Curious Case of Kalev’s Product Placement.

Interested in semiotic analysis? Check out our master’s programme in Semiotics.

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  • Porsen

    Good observations. More in the news on traffic culture in Estonia.

    • Natalia Hoffman

      Thanks very much. Yeah, I read that article yesterday.
      This is a hot topic right now, it seems.