Getting rid of traffic laws

After getting a (second) speeding ticket today, I decided to revisit an interesting topic: open roads. Essentially, this has been done in a few European countries. It is a system where there are really no traffic laws. The roads are shared by bikers, pedestrians, and cars (in some cases), and things like speed limits, traffic lights, etc. are done away with. To drivers like me, this is paradise. But is it sustainable?

Walters (2002) reports on multiple countries which have instituted open roads/shared spaces. She says,

Experiments in towns in the northern Friesland region found that busy junctions where two or three people had been knocked down and killed every year dropped to a zero death rate when they took the traffic lights away and put a tree in the middle of the street instead. UK experts now believe the same methods could work in Britain.

The unusual traffic arrangements are based on forcing motorists to rely heavily on eye contact with each other, pedestrians, cyclists and bus drivers instead of falling back on road signs and red lights to dictate their driving. When drivers have to keep an eye out for potential obstacles and casualties because there are no lines, traffic lights or lane markings they automatically slow down to below 20mph – a speed where a child who is knocked down is five times more likely to live as one who is hit at more than 30mph. . . .

In many Dutch towns, traffic lights and pelican crossings have been removed, cyclists are not given bike lanes and there are no speed limits, so cars and bicycles weave in and out of each other and even blind people can just step safely out into the street – because traffic is moving so slowly it can react quickly to any obstacle.

The shared spaces concept was created by Hans Monderman and many of the road designs were his work. Lyall (2005) writes regarding his work,

In residential communities, Mr. Monderman began narrowing the roads and putting in design features like trees and flowers, red brick paving stones and even fountains to discourage people from speeding, following the principle now known as psychological traffic calming, where behavior follows design.

He made his first nervous foray into shared space in a small village whose residents were upset at its being used as a daily thoroughfare for 6,000 speeding cars. When he took away the signs, lights and sidewalks, people drove more carefully. Within two weeks, speeds on the road had dropped by more than half.

In fact, he said, there has never been a fatal accident on any of his roads.

Several early studies bear out his contention that shared spaces are safer. In England, the district of Wiltshire found that removing the center line from a stretch of road reduced drivers’ speed without any increase in accidents.

Here is a video of one of his very neat roads:

And one more magazine article describing the success of these roads:

A year after the change, the results of this “extreme makeover” were striking: Not only had congestion decreased in the intersection—buses spent less time waiting to get through, for example—but there were half as many accidents, even though total car traffic was up by a third. Students from a local engineering college who studied the intersection reported that both drivers and, unusually, cyclists were using signals—of the electronic or hand variety—more often. They also found, in surveys, that residents, despite the measurable increase in safety, perceived the place to be more dangerous. This was music to Monderman’s ears. If they had not felt less secure, he said, he “would have changed it immediately.”

Vanderbilt, 2010

Most of these road changes would not occur in business districts or strongly urban areas, but surrounding areas would be fine as would highways and interstates.

In addition, I know there’s some evidence speed limits don’t work. King and Sunstein (1999) review the evidence concerning Montana’s attempt to eliminate speed limits:

2. The change in the speed limit had the significant consequence of encouraging very fast and somewhat reckless driving by tourists. Many of these drivers appeared to be attracted to Montana by virtue of its Basic Rule. This point also has an important implication; a state that allows very fast driving (because of a high speed limit in the form of a rule or standard) may find itself becoming a “speed magnet,” which may produce unanticipated dangers.

3. Partly as a result of (2), aggregate mortality and morbidity rates on the interstate highways of Montana increased after the switch to the Basic Rule. Both statistics, however, generally remained within historical fluctuating ranges, and a sharp upward spike in 1997 does not offer any unambiguous lesson.

4. Even taking (2) and (3) into account, the aggregate motor vehicle accident rate did not increase enormously in Montana, perhaps because the Basic Rule encouraged drivers to use the interstate highways, which are relatively safe. This point suggests a final important implication; one of the consequences of decreasing safety on interstate highways may be to increase overall safety, if the decrease is a result of a change in policy that shifts drivers away from relatively more perilous rural roads and makes interstate driving more attractive.

So, overall it doesn’t seem to make a huge impact. I think open roads are a pretty cool idea and I’d like to see them slowly transitioned into some American cities.

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