The semiotic interpretations of traffic policing

Paojakhup Guite @ Saihenjang *

In the wake of yesterday's traffic buzz at Tuibong Traffic point, I would like to highlight some semiotics elements related thereto. The hand gesture efforts (as a sign) of a traffic cop amidst busy commuters under heavy rainfall is gaining much attention.

The term 'semiotics' apparently appears esoteric to understand which actually is not. I would like to illustrate the concept of semiotics in the light of the reward winning traffic police personnel for having braved the heavy downpour in the line of duty.

Work is Worship

Manipur's Tuibong resident BT HenjoyVaiphei, a traffic police personnel was in the limelight. He endeared himself to the people of the State and beyond by not derelicting his duty notwithstanding the torrential downpour. He remained undeterred come what may !

The responsible traffic cop was rung up from the State Chief Minister Office in less than 24 hours of him being in action going viral on social media. He was accorded a standing ovation in the posh CM's office with an incentive of a cash reward, reportedly of Rs 1,00000/- (One lakh only).

The Concept

Semiotics or Semiosis or Semiology is the study of sign processes. The semiotic process explores the study of signs and symbols as a significant part of communications. Ferdinand de Saussure, who coined the term, defines it "as the science that studies the life of signs in the bosom of society".

Generally, there are seven common semiotic systems such as audio, audio sounds, design, facial/hand gestures, linguistic, music and visual. Among them, I would like to bring out particularly hand gestures to our notice vis--vis the traffic management for a discussion here. A substitute for hand gestures of a traffic police is the traffic lights, where manual efforts of a person is not required.

Hand gestures are more commonly used in hill district headquarters of Manipur unlike advanced traffic light system which is highly in vogue in more developed areas like in the heart of Imphal, the State capital of Manipur. Using a sign theory developed by Ferdinand de Saussure, we need to have clarity of understanding first on the two signs: Signified and Signifier

The Signifier, according to Saussure, is the material form of the sign. This is a concrete object that we can see, hear, taste, touch, smell or is related to traffic codes. The traffic codes here signify traffic lights and/or traffic cops who mainly control traffic at intersections.

Another example is, think of a zebra crossing that is used to indicate traffic limit/warning signs. The zebra crossing itself can be described as a signifier. In the same vein, traffic lights and the traffic cops (the sound of whistle for that matter) are said to be a signifier as the case may be.

However, a signifier cannot exist in absence of a signified. Therefore, a signified is the abstract idea or concept embedded in a signifier that is being represented. Taking them together constitute the linguistic sign.

Generally, one cannot exist in isolation, thus their mutual relationship is called Signification. In a rare case if a signifier is found to be without a signified, then their relationship is said to be noise (in spoken language).


The World Health Organization proposed the Global Plan for the Decade of Action for Road Safety 2011-2020. The WHO's initiative was aimed at reducing the number of victims in traffic accidents in countries with higher accidents like Mexico, India, China, Brazil, the United States, among others.

In its report (2012, released in 2015), it is shown that leading cause of death in young people in the 15-29 age group is traffic accident compared to other causes of death like suicide, HIV/AIDS, homicide, maternal conditions, lower respiratory infections, diarrhoeal diseases, drowning, ishchaemia heart disease and meningitis.

According to the Secretaria de Salud (2012), in Mexico City, the most accident prone zone turned out to be intersections, because pedestrians and drivers are wont to having more interactions at these points.

This causes greater insecurity for the road users, esp. those who walk. One of the reasons for this insecurity is lackadaisical attitude of service providers- Government, if not CSOs or NGOs who work in this field. Therefore, a keen interest in understanding traffic issues on the roads is being induced from a semiotic approach.

Goods & Service Providers

This responsible cop, Mr. Vaiphei reminds us of the science of semiotics in order to study road infrastructure otherwise known as communication development. The theoretical contributions of Ferdinand Saussure, et al have a lot to do with infrastructure development in so far as road mobility is concerned.

Roads are a public utility where pedestrians use them for work, walk, study, recreation and other activities of daily living providing a harmonious and safe way for people to move either on foot, by car, bicycle, public or private transport services.

To determine the safe or unsafe mobility of pedestrians on the roads by any medium, the semiotic interpretations of signifier and the signified come into picture. The semiotic interpretation based on the traffic personnel or a traffic light system as green-amber-red or red-amber-green light is the most reliable form to determine whether the road is a dangerous place or not for users.

It is high time all and sundry shunned the notion of Dominant Paradigm for development communication to occur which was prominent post-World War II. The emerging alternatives stress on community participation for social change. In a dominant paradigm, participation is almost absent while in State dominated space, it is limited to listening to the State.

According to Jurgen Habermas, in the alternative paradigm, a public sphere is created for more access to communication tools and voice. Jurgen Habermas is a German philosopher and sociologist in the tradition of critical theory and pragmatism. This new paradigm is likely to be initiated by CSOs and NGOs, etc. in tandem with State to ensure an all-round participatory development.

State should not muzzle responsible citizens in decision making processes, more so in this age of social media like FB, WhatsApp, Twitter, etc. Rendering them unheard of their voices would entail development ramifications, and this is called Voice Poverty. According to Jo Tacchi, voice poverty is "the inability of people to influence the decisions that affect their lives, and the right in that decision making".

Tacchi is a development researcher at Loughborough University, England. In this way, when a signifier and the signified maintain their mutual relationship and walk the talk, there comes about transactional communication which stands for a consensual dialogue between service providers and the stakeholders or beneficiaries.

Thus, time and again, I pay salute to the traffic cop who deserves a pat on the back for his sincere duty. No less is my heartfelt gratitude as a responsible citizen to the CMO. The ripple effect was seen in several spots on the roads the very next day where traffic police organized a cleanliness drive than to carrying out vehicle frisking.

Lastly, but not the least, the road users in at least district headquarters will feel more secure if the traffic lights are installed replacing physical presence of the cops using hand gestures and sound toiling all day long.

Doing this would ensure a better and meaningful relationship between signifier (automatic signal lights) and the signified (what it indicates about). This would be a good sign of communication developments Aka road infrastructure development.

* Paojakhup Guite @ Saihenjang wrote this article for The Sangai Express
The writer is currently pursuing an MA in Media Studies in the University of Hyderabad, Telangana.
He may be reached at guitepaojakhup9(AT)gmail(DOT)com
This article was webcasted on May 17 2022.

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