Naked Streets: Why Traffic Signs Don't Make Us Safer

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According to some traffic experts, "Nanny State" traffic lights and road signs don't make us safer. Instead, making our streets deliberately "naked" of speed bumps, chicanes and signs will make drivers more cautious.

Watch CBS News Videos OnlineI watched the above Mo Rocca segment on CBS "This Morning" this weekend featuring Dr. Gerald Wilde, a professor of psychology at Ontario's Queens University. 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.


Now the experiment's moving beyond the little Dutch city and into the bright lights of London — the first major city that may attempt to order traffic through disorder. Boris Johnson, the city's mayor, is behind an effort to switch off traffic lights in the city's center. The NYT Wheels Blog tell us

"The experiment is slated for around Westminster Abbey (at the intersection of Victoria Street and Strutton Ground) and will last six weeks. For the first two weeks, the lights will operate as normal. The lights will be shut off the following two weeks, and then turned back on for the final two weeks. Closed-circuit cameras and license-plate recognition cameras will monitor driver and pedestrian response."


If the experiment's successful, London could switch off as many as 20% of the city's 400-plus traffic lights.

While we're not entirely convinced all signs should be removed. Frankly, we're concerned that leaving the decision of which drivers are "driving too fast for the conditions" to law enforcement leaves some serious potential for abuse. But, the idea of smart traffic circles still may make sense in many intersections. Really, anything to get rid of the idiots who think a stop sign is nothing more than a yield sign would be great. [via CBS News, NYT Wheels Blog, Times Online]