Yes, the title of this post sounds like an oxymoron. Street signs are often there to make streets safer – here’s a give way sign, a speed limit, a warning about a school, a particularly sharp bend, the list goes on. But does all this signage actually make us safer, or does it turn drivers into mindless idiots who forget to actually look at what’s going on because they’re only focusing on the signage or the traffic signals?
An interesting article (yes I know it’s from 2009, but it’s still relevant) picks up on this issue:
[Dr Gerald] Wilde theorizes — in something he calls “risk homeostasis” — that everyone has his or her own fixed level of acceptable risk. When the level of risk in a part of the individual’s life changes, there will be a corresponding rise or fall in risk elsewhere to bring the overall risk back to that individual’s equilibrium. Wilde argues that the same is true of larger human systems, like a population of drivers. He argues that street signs designed to make us safer actually make us drive more carelessly by sort of nanny-ing us into complacency.
A new traffic movement called “naked streets,” being practiced in the city of Drachten in the Netherlands seeks to change that. The small city spearheaded the change of 20 four-way intersections into traffic circles with no signage. The net result? One intersection went from between two and four people dying each year to zero people dying since 2003. In another, the removal of traffic lights has resulted in accidents falling from thirty-six in the four years before it was introduced to two in the next two years. Not only that but they’ve been more efficient — thanks to overall increases in efficiency from traffic circles — with the average time for each vehicle to cross the junction falling from 50 seconds to 30 seconds, despite a rise in the volume of traffic. Why? Because people are paying attention to traffic, they’re going slower and they’re communicating with each other.
Owen Paterson, the Dutch Transport Minister, visited Drachten to see the implementation in action. “The idea is to create space where there is mild anxiety among everyone so they all behave cautiously. No one thunders along at 30mph on a high street thinking that they have priority.” Mr Paterson said that putting up more speed limit signs and painting more lines on the road had failed to make streets safer. “Instead of the State laying down the rules, we need to give responsibility back to road users. It’s about creating an environment where it just doesn’t feel right to drive faster than 20mph.” We couldn’t have said it better ourselves.
I think there’s a lot of validity to the argument being put forward here, and it explains why shared spaces – which in theory should be horrifically dangerous – are actually very safe. In fact the most dangerous intersections in Auckland often tend to be those which are managed to the highest extent – such as the big giant one near Botany town centre.
Maybe it’s time for the traffic engineers to let us think for ourselves?