Turn right at the first ‘robot’!!


Driving around town yesterday, I realised I had forgotten to share a small but interesting fact about South Africa. It’s something that still that makes me smile each time I say it.

After a few months of moving here, I happened to ask a lady at my pottery class for directions to a nearby restaurant that I wanted to visit. It all sounded easy enough until she said, “Just turn right at the first robot.”

I was still pretty new in class and didn’t want to sound rude. But what the hell was a robot? I mean, I KNOW what is a robot – but why are they on the streets? This isn’t a scene from some I Robot/X-men kinda movie and the last time I checked, it was still 2013!

I thought I had not heard her correctly so I asked again. The nice lady repeated the same thing. Looking sheepish, I asked her what she meant. And that’s when I learnt – traffic lights in SA are called robots!!

Since then, I have been trying to figure out why the traffic lights are so-called. It seems that back in the old days, when the policemen controlling traffic on the road were replaced by automatic electric signals, the signals began to be called ‘robot policemen’. Over time, the term became shortened to just ‘robot’ and has stuck ever since. I guess there is good logic to this – even though just saying the word makes me want to laugh. Traffic signals are, after all, machines programmed to carry out a particular set of actions, which is the very definition of a robot (as we know it). So it only makes sense to call them so.

So the next time you are in this part of the world, don’t be surprised if someone mentions robots!

2 thoughts on “Turn right at the first ‘robot’!!

    1. Indeed! Rather fascinating…another interesting phrase is ‘sharp sharp’. Its used as a greeting or in response to a greeting or simply to express enthusiasm!

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