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?

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  1. yes, absolutely, traffic engineers should stop trying to think for us and let drivers take resposibility for their actions

    I grew up and learnt to drive in Wellington, a place where narrow roads wind ou, down and around hillsides, for example the road I lived on in the western hills of the Hutt Valley was so narrow that cars had to slow to pass, “going down gives way to going up” was the rule of thumb from the days of manual transmissions and crash boxes

    and as a result, Wellingtonians interact when driving, if turning, they position themselves on the road to allow other drivers to flow around them, they give way to each other and let others into traffic from side roads, it’s much less the dog eat dog of Auckland driving

    there is much needless waste in Auckland traffic engineering, for example red arrows stopping turning traffic when there’s an excellent view of nothing coming in the other direction, ramp metering lights operating in free flow conditions

    but having turned drivers into mindless sheep, how do we wean them off being spoon fed? (apologies for mixing metaphors)

  2. Generally agreeing with the concept, so I feel a bit churlish asking this, but do you have any indication that the Botany town centre intersection actually IS unsafe? Crash rates? Or even better, crash rates / traffic volume?

    As to SteveC – I think the key issue here is that it will be difficult to do this gradually, or scattershot-wise. I think it works best when a whole area is treated like this, at least a suburb-size or more.

    We also have to accept that simply removing signs is NOT going to work, because so many other, much more physical elements of our transport network are also part of the regulatory system. I.e. kerbs, crash barriers, pedestrian fences, traffic signals etc… to be consistent and create a different kind of transport environment, halfway steps are likely to fail.

    Though I’d really love to see some of these traffic lights go TODAY. Replace them all with raised speed tables so no-one speeds, done.

  3. Max, I was thinking of excepting you as one of the enlightened ones 😉

    you are right that there is a whole design language that needs to be re-thought, we can’t simply remove signs

    but there are also places I’d like to see signals put in immediately, particularly at roundabouts where traffic on one leg predominates and hold up everyone else

    1. So what, signs don’t make people think?

      Like someone else has said, this might work if the roads weren’t all enormous wide boulevards so that you actually had to pay attention to use them successfully. But Auckland is so built for cars that the roads are generously wide most places, and so I don’t think paying attention to the road is what would happen sans signs.

      Might work in the Netherlands, sure, but you’ve noticed how many cyclists they have there, havem’t you? And how much more of a pedestrian friendly environment their roads are, haven’t you?

      It’s bad enough trying to walk from A to B in Auckland as it is when the traffic light cycles last 2+ minutes and only gives pedestrians one go during that time. The last thing we need is fewer traffic lights.

  4. The US in my experience is certainly over-signed, and in the massive sea of visual pollution, it’s often hard to discern the signs you want. Like a no-right turn sign (that the sign underneath then explains applies only to morning peak), which might be OK, except it’s one of a dozen signs at the intersection.

  5. I have heard of this place Drachten and what they have done is a type of traffic-calming, not by introducing chicanes and obstacles but by removing those props which tend to make drivers feel that they have priority. They have demonstrated that this approach has its place, and its place is where space is predominantly “pedestrian” and where drivers are made to realise that they are there “under sufference” only. Where the road environment gives obvious priority to vehicles, then I can’t see that removing signs and controls will be helpful. While it is true that drivers should be encouraged to drive appropriately to the conditions and “self-police”, the reality is that different individuals have different ideas about what is “appropriate”. The hyped up boy-racer might “feel” quite safe and confident breaking speed limits but might be presenting a significant danger to the little old lady or the young novice, each of whom have just as much right to be there and be safe. So given the incredibly hazardous environment out there on the roads, there really is very little room for generally allowing subjective judgement to take over wholesale from rules, restrictions and signs.

    I do have some reservations when I hear that “putting up more speed limit signs and painting more lines on the road had failed to make streets safer”, because this just says to me that the sanctions for disregarding these messages are not tough enough. On the railway, if you consistently exceed speed limits or pass red signals you will lose your job. On the road you will be given a paltry fine and maybe a few demerit points – an insufficient penalty to instil into the minds of habitual rule-breakers (and risk-takers with other people’s lives) that it is just not worth it. In Drachten, apparently “No one thunders along at 30mph on a high street thinking that they have priority”. Well what happens if some idiot does? Presumably the unsigned rules and regs then quickly kick back in and good old traditional big-stick policing takes over?

  6. If we did do this, watch the council get blamed for unsafe roads and then back down on the whole thing. People always cry for freedom when it suits them, but then demand accountability when something goes wrong. You can’t really have both.

    1. Ari, we aren’t in the US – Council cannot be sued for a roading death unless it can be shown to be grossly negligient in contributing to it. That has some downsides, but overall it reduces the amount of time we spend on lawyering, and prevents Council from being ultracareful (never trying anything but the most legally acceptable thing) with “new” designs.

      There’s already good science behind HOW you reduce signage and prescriptive control, so all it would take is a dedicated program that sets out the “what do we want to change” and “how we want to change it” (because you want to be methodical, not just do what seems best at the time). Then you implement that, preferably over larger study area, and measure the crash record over time. If your crash records drop overall then you have the basis to extend the pilot elsewhere.

      1. I understand council cannot be sued in that case, but council can back down on doing something (or undoing something) when you get a mob of angry Orakeians waving pitchforks and torches banging on the door. Technically feasible and politically feasible are not the same thing unfortunately.

        1. Of course they are not. But a pretty conservative Council under John Banks pushed through shared space in the CBD, so that shows to me that progress doesn’t need to stop before it’s started. With dedication, you can still make significant changes.

          1. I seem to recall that we achieved more with bus priority under the John Banks led council with Greg McKeown as chair of the Transport Committee than with the subsequent Dick Hubbard led “pro PT” council.

  7. Not just fewer signs are needed, many more traffic lights should be removed to allow drivers to take responsibility themselves to cross roads and look out for traffic instead of relying on lights to stop or drive. 20 sets of traffic lights between the ferry building and Grey Lynn are twice what are needed.

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