Day 87: Guidance Counselor Diaries: Traffic Psychology

originally published March 27, 2012

Hello there. And you are…? Ah yes, Oswaldo Bodfish. Thank you for coming to see me today. I know, I know, a trip to your high school guidance counselor isn’t exactly as much fun as “playing the pinballs” or “rockin’ out to Queensryche”, like I know you kids love to do nowadays. But it’s important. You need to gain some direction, set some goals, maybe shave those three lonely pubes you call a mustache. You hearin’ me, Mr. Bodfish?

Alright, let’s have a look at your file. I use a fairly thorough examination process when it’s asked of me, Mr. Bodfish. Who asked? Actually, your parents and three of your teachers are all concerned about your lack of direction, or what we in the field like to call a ‘soft-focus’ approach to your future. I’ve conducted a few interviews, done a tremendous amount of research at libraries, universities, and on a scholarly website called ‘Wikipedia’, and here’s what I came up with for you.

Traffic psychologist.

Now, now. Don’t give me that look. Don’t roll your eyes. You know what my mother used to say? “Don’t roll your eyes, or Jesus will cram a fork into your throat.” No, I think it’s an old Irish saying or something.

I know, this doesn’t sound like a glamorous profession. But Mr. Bodfish, I think you’re overlooking how important these people are. Do you remember when we had that senior-class turtle race last November? Mr. Beedles informs me that you set up the track, you laid out the obstacles, and you did a fantastic job in making sure the lanes were traversable, conforming to the turtle psychology, if you will.

In your freshman year, when you were caught running a 1920’s-style street craps game in the staff parking lot during football games, that demonstrates a solid grasp of risk analysis, which is a key part of traffic psychology. Also, you shaved that Chinese lady’s head last spring in a bout of road rage. Studying road rage is another facet of this profession. I think you’d be a great fit.

I’d like you to study up on one of the masters. Karl Peglau.

Who is he? That’s a fine question, and one I’m sure you can figure out with a quick search on the internet. He was a German fellow, and he invented a pair of handy little figures for the East Germans to use as their ‘Walk’ and ‘Don’t Walk’ indicators at intersections. You know how we have the hand and the little walking dude? Check these out.

Yes, you have a point, Mr. Bodfish. The one on the left does look a little like the Hamburgler, strutting across the street to steal Mayor McCheese’s lunch. And the one on the right kind of looks like a World War I soldier being crucified.

I think you’re making light of this, Mr. Bodfish. Karl Peglau was a hero in East Germany. Sure, this is a nation where people weren’t supposed to be singled out; it was all about the collective. But Peglau saw that the Germans hadn’t really altered their traffic lights since the 1930s. It was like Hitler took over and declared war on traffic safety before he invaded Poland! What, Czechoslovakia came first? I think you’d better check your history textbook again, Mr. Bodfish.

Peglau was chosen out of a field of probably hundreds of respected communist traffic psychologists to design new indicators for East Berlin. This was his moment, Mr. Bodfish. He wasn’t going to back down. They wanted him to reduce traffic accidents. He was saving people’s lives. Yes, Mr. Bodfish, just like Batman.

These little guys, which you keep calling Hamburgler and soldier-Jesus actually went by the name Ampelmännchen. He wanted them to be “friendly and approachable.” No, I don’t think East Germans actually tried to converse with them. They were like mascots, symbols that the public could rally behind and look forward to seeing at every major intersection. Peglau gave them hats, he gave them “button noses” (well, the walking guy has a nose), and good, hearty, socialist stocky builds. Peglau literally said of his creations that they project “an aura of coziness and human warmth.” Look again, Mr. Bodfish. Don’t you just want to hug them?

I think you’re being sarcastic, Mr. Bodfish. The Ampelmännchen are not ‘hot’ or ‘smexy’ – I don’t think that second one is even a word. Try to see the genius here. He made the walking guy kind of arrow-shaped, and the stop guy look like a barricade. East Berlin gets some pretty nasty weather – these guys could be identified clearly in snow, fog, and brutal communist rain.

You’re asking if the figures caught on? Are you kidding? The East Germans loved these guys! I mean granted, they didn’t have much else to enjoy without rock ‘n roll, the sexual revolution and windowpane acid, but I think their love for the Ampelmännchen was real. By the 1980s, these guys were on traffic signals all over the country, not just in East Berlin.

You still don’t understand why this profession is so cool? Well, look at what happened after reunification. Germany standardized its traffic signals according to the West German standard, so the Ampelmännchen were phased out. But come guy collected all the old signals, got the license to merchandise the figures, and now he’s pumping out T-shirts, lamps, lawn chairs, you name it.

Peglau may not have made a fortune off these designs (it was, after all, someone else who snagged the merchandizing rights), but he still contributes ideas to the Ampelmännchen shop in Berlin, and probably gets a cut. It’s only a matter of time before the fad hits the US. Watch out for Ampelmännchen Underoos in your stocking next year!

Okay, you’re still not convinced? All this glory, this superhero-esque commitment to the greater good and potential business opportunity when your work becomes a marketing meme, and still you’re not convinced? Well, let’s pull up Mr. Peglau’s Wikipedia page on my computer here… Okay, now let’s pull up the category of traffic psychologists and have a look at another… Oh.

Okay, so he’s the only one who gets a Wikipedia page. But you know what? He died three years ago, which means there’s an opening at the top of the world of traffic psychology. You could be the next East German Batman.

That is all. Can you please send Ms. Kepke in when you leave? I feel she would be a fantastic golf glove model. Thank you.

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