44. Red Lights Do NOT Know You Are Running Late

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May 7, 2013 by bdetienne


Picture this: you are preparing for the upcoming work day. The shower, shave, and brushing teeth are out of the way but as you are getting dressed you glance over at the clock and realize with horror that you should already be on the road! Crap! You still have to grab coffee, make lunch, and say goodbye to the kids/pets. You rush through theses tasks and then hop in the car and begin the the trek to the office. It is bad enough you are running late, but then you seem to catch every single red light on your route. Or a slow driver is puttering along in front of you. Or a bus or truck is trying to make a wide turn but cannot due to traffic so all vehicles behind it are waiting for the road to clear.

We have all been in this situation (some more than others, but I digress). And it is only more compounded by the red lights/slow drivers/buses and trucks we encounter. But do we notice these traffic impediments on mornings when we are on time? I decided to conduct an experiment this week to determine the answer. I live four miles from my office (as the crow flies) but because of the layout of my fair town, it takes an average of 15 minutes to arrive at work. Each day this week, I timed how long it took to make the trek to work. Three of the days I left my house on time, the other two I departed behind schedule. Every day encountered at least two red lights and either a slow driver or a bus/truck holding up traffic in order to conduct a wide turn.

[Sidenote: I acknowledge that my hypothesis and the following results are not ironclad. I am not a scientist. My brother-in-law takes care of that checkbox for the family and I am confident he would rip this theory and my findings to shreds. But for entertainment purposes, I proceed anyway.]

Here are the results, unofficially sponsored by Timex:

Monday (on time): 15:27

Tuesday (on time): 14:11

Wednesday (late): 14:43

Thursday (late): 13:49

Friday (on time): 13:01

The data took me completely by surprise. I could not believe that the daily times would be as close as they were, or that a late day would have one of the quickest voyages.

So why does it seem like we always catch the red lights, slow drivers, and large vehicles when we are late, but not not time? I postulate that it is because we are paying more attention when we are running behind. Punctual people are not stressing about the clock en route to work. They are listening to music or talk radio, praying, picturing the day ahead, or for those chatty kathys, talking on their mobiles. They may recall a driver cutting them off or envying a car that pulls up alongside them but typically they do not recall anything specific from the drive.

When you are late, on the other hand, you are constantly scanning the horizon, searching for ways to make up for time lost. Speeding but within an acceptable limit, cutting into another lane at the first opportunity available to get around slow or turning traffic, and taking a shortcut are a few of the methods utilized to cut down the commute time. If they work, excellent! Your tardiness graduates from late to “fashionably late,” or if luck is on your side, on time. If not, then the “if only” game commences. “If only I had avoided that red light, I would have been on time.” “I would have been there at 8:00 if I wasn’t stuck behind that stupid Honda going the speed limit.” “There was a huge break in traffic coming the other way. If that truck had only crossed when it should have, I would not have been late.”

Try this experiment out for yourself. There may be a day or two where an inordinately long light may prolong your journey, or some issue with another vehicle on the road causes delays, but overall you just may be surprised how little difference in times there are between a day you are on time and a day you are not. Contrary to public opinion, red lights do NOT know you are running late.


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