[VIEWPOINT]Minor car accidents can be a good thingOne of the first things we are taught when learning to drive is to recognize and obey traffic lights and signs. They organize and control the flow of traffic. They make things efficient. They keep us safe.
Or do they? Back in the 1980s, a new breed of traffic planner began questioning the premise of designing streets to make people feel safe. When pedestrians and drivers are segregated onto sidewalks and roads, both trusting lights and signs to maintain order and keep things safe, everyone loses their natural sense of caution. We drive too fast and don’t pay enough attention. We cross the road without looking both ways. We entrust our safety to signals and signs ― a recipe for carelessness, serious accidents and death.
The solution these traffic planners came up with was remarkably simple: Remove all lights and signs and have cars and pedestrians share the same space. By creating so-called “naked streets,” drivers slow down and are more alert, attending to real hazards rather than watching for signs. Pedestrians cross roads more carefully, relying on their eyes rather than a green light to tell them it’s safe. Making roads appear more dangerous, in other words, has the effect of making them safer by increasing everyone’s awareness of the actual risks.
To illustrate, urban designer Ben Hamilton-Baillie uses the example of a campsite. “There are no signs,” he says, “but it works fine. The reason is that there are no rules and you have to rely on your own faculties. As soon as there’s human interest and human interaction, our speeds drop. We don’t need traffic calming and cameras and enforcement of police and all that stuff.”
It wasn’t until the advent of the automobile and the development of the three-color, four-way street light (invented in 1920 by William Potts and first used in Detroit) that governments began to segregate roads and control traffic movement. It was done, of course, in the interest of safety. In assuming responsibility for managing risk, however, governments may have done their citizens a disservice by taking away that risk and thus depriving them of the opportunity to learn. In this regard, Mr. Hamilton-Baillie points out, small accidents can actually be good. “We quickly learn that a wet floor means it is likely to be slippery, or that ice on the winter’s pond can be treacherous. But in order to learn, we need accidents.”
Can such radical theories actually work? In fact they can. Seven years ago in the Dutch town of Drachten, population 50,000, curbs were removed and 12 of the town’s 15 traffic lights and many of its signs were discarded, leaving drivers, cyclists and pedestrians to intermingle. The result? A few small accidents, but not a single traffic fatality, a significant improvement over the town’s previous record of one traffic death, on average, every three years.
The Drachten experiment was invented by Hans Monderman, a civil engineer and former road safety inspector, together with Mr. Hamilton-Baillie, of the urban redesigning organization Shared Space. According to the group’s philosophy, “Shared Space is successful because the perception of risk may be a means or even a prerequisite for increasing objective safety. Because when a situation feels unsafe, people are more alert and there are fewer accidents.”
The citizens of Drachten seem happy with the change. Even at the town’s busiest and signal-free intersection, traffic flows smoothly thanks to a recently created roundabout and some residents say the unimpeded traffic moves faster.
Communities following Drachten’s lead stand to gain even more than improved road safety and smoother traffic flow. They can also ease the financial burden.
A crosswalk equipped with sensors and lights can cost $20,000. Traffic lights for a single intersection typically run around $80,000 to $100,000, and consume an average of $1,400 in electricity each year. Want to offset these expenses with automatic cameras to catch drivers running red lights? They’ll set you back $60,000 to $90,000 each.
Despite its alarming unconventionality, the Shared Space concept is spreading. Communities are experimenting with eliminating curbs and signals and allowing cars and pedestrians to intermingle.
Scary? You bet. That’s the whole point. By making roads appear more dangerous, everyone takes more care ― and everyone stays safe.
*The writer is a professor of practical English at Yonsei University and author of “The Imjin War.”
by Samuel Hawley