Imagine a city of 30,000 people without a single traffic light.
Termini Imerese, Italy, is such a place. (I'm here teaching English as a second language.)
You might think that this is because everyone walks everywhere and uses public transportation. But this hilly Sicilian town has as many cars per capita as any American town. And when you add in all the scooters, there is just about one vehicle for every person over the age of 14.
So how do they manage with thousands of vehicles and no trafic lights?
Life on the streets of Termini is a constant game of "chicken."
They do have stop signs. And they look exactly like the ones in the USA. But I think "STOP" translates into Italian something like "Slow down slightly and just keep going."
Every intersection becomes a contest of wills.
The strategy seems to be to startle the driver of an approaching car so that he taps the brake which gives you just enough room to nose out into the street. And then you take your time crossing or turning into the oncoming traffic.
The goal does not seem to be to keep the vehicles flowing smoothly, nor does it seem to be to arrive at your destination as quickly as possible. The goal seems to be to impose your will on the others.
For example, say you want to make a left turn and two cars are coming toward you with a large gap behind the second car. Efficiency would dictate that you wait for the second car to pass and then turn. But the Italian driver invariably cuts off the second car and waits for it to come to a complete stop. Only then does the driver make a deliberate left turn.
Liberal use is made of the horn, but not in the way it is used in New York City.
Only occasionally is the horn used to say, "What were you thinking?" Usually it means, "Attenzione! I'm coming through."
This game is not only for cars. Scooters and pedestrians can play as well.
Scooters weave in and out of traffic and obey the rules of the road even less than cars. Pedestrians step out into traffic and leisurely stroll to the other side of the street.
The fun continues on the sidewalk. People walk straight at each other expecting the other person to give way. A favorite maneuver is "two against one." Two people walk side-by-side on the narrow walk, preferably arm-in-arm. The single person is then forced to step aside into the street.
The point of all this seems to be to establish who is more important.
In America we play this game in less obvious ways.