04/16/2013 05:29 EDT | Updated 06/16/2013 05:12 EDT

Why Stop at Red Lights, Anyway?

double traffic light isolated...
double traffic light isolated...

Why stop at red lights?

In my part of Toronto, I have noticed a new understanding of traffic regulation. Stop if it is convenient to do so, but if you are in a hurry, forget about it.

In fact, I have recommended that children be taught to watch the traffic and the signals in this way: Once the little walking man appears in the signal box, wait for the second car to race through the red light before you venture into the intersection. This may sound like odd advice, but if we only teach children that red means stop and green means go, we could be courting disaster.

To introduce children to rules, regulations and laws without examining the process for arriving at these limits to freedom or thinking critically about them is to have missed an important step. Perhaps it is the step some drivers in my city have missed?

Here are a few of the questions that might help those of us who have to share the road understand the kinds of choices we must make:

  • If we have the right to enjoy liberty and freedom in our democracy, why should we permit limits to that freedom? Or, in kid terms: What is the purpose of traffic lights? Why do we need to stop?
  • Do traffic regulations actually prevent harm? If they are effective, why would we make exceptions to these regulations? In kid terms: Why do we let fire trucks and ambulances drive through the red light without stopping? Is it fair that they don't stop when others have to?
  • What side effects does the limiting of freedom create? What should be taken into consideration when we are deciding how to balance freedom with safety? And in kid terms: Could a fire truck ever cause a crash? What if a driver is in a big hurry? Should that person be permitted to rush through the red light like the fire trucks do? and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and Education Trust have teamed up to introduce kids to civics education using fun and intriguing stories. Each month, a new story will challenge adults to sit back, ask questions and listen carefully to what their children have to say. You might just be pleasantly surprised.

It is certainly easier to tell our children that the rules are black and white. Rules say "always" and "never". But adults know that the real world is made up of many and various shades of grey. What happens when we engage our children in thoughtful deliberation instead of telling them the "correct" answers? Children begin to develop the habits of democracy.

While it may be difficult to resist the temptation to deliver lectures, democratic engagement is best achieved when we hold back our opinions and actually listen to our children's questions and views. As adults, we can encourage our children to think critically about their opinions by gently following their questions with more questions.

This is the kind of exploration that helps us all understand multiple views of fairness and, as Section 1 the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms maintains, "reasonable limits."

While we may need to obey laws and rules, we have no such obligation to like them or to believe they are fair. Most adults can think of laws that have changed during their lifetime -- usually because someone or some group pointed out that the time had come for a change.

For example, some towns are removing stop signs. Even though it appears to be counterintuitive, there are studies showing that, in certain cases, people drive more slowly and carefully without them!

Adults help children develop good habits like brushing their teeth and saying please and thank you. Why not help them develop the habits of democracy?