Monday, September 28, 2009

(Fewer) rules of the road

Officials in Drachten, Holland, wanted to reduce accidents and injuries on the town's roads, so they turned to a traffic engineer with an unusual idea: eliminate rules. Hans Monderman believes that people are more careful when they are subject to fewer commandments and less direction. So he removed road signs, traffic lights and even markings. The so-far positive results suggest that better results may well come from letting people make ad hoc arrangements on the spot than from subjecting them to top-down control.

Part of the problem is that regulations seem to create a false sense of security -- and entitlement. A recent British study found that drivers actually give bicyclists less room when cycle lanes are explicitly marked on the road. Leaving the road unmarked creates greater perceived danger and forces drivers to make their own arrangements -- generally creating a safer situation for bicyclists. The same dynamic, Monderman claims, prevails in all traffic situations. Leave drivers, cyclists and pedestrians to their own devices, and they come to better arrangements than any that can be forced on them.

So far, the data seems to support Monderman's theory. At least one report (PDF) on Drachten's traffic experiment found a significant drop in accidents and injuries after traffic signals were removed at a busy intersection -- from between four and ten a year before the change to one per year thereafter. Traffic also began to move faster through the intersection even as it became safer. "On the busiest streets average times to cross the intersection have fallen from 50 seconds to about 30 seconds."

There's a concept called "spontaneous order" popular among many philosophers and economists. The idea is that people are perfectly capable of adapting to new situations and establishing rules of the game for dealing with one another that are better than those imposed from above. The Drachten experiment looks to be an example of spontaneous order in action, as people create, on the fly, safe, sane ways to negotiate their way through busy roads.

Monderman's ideas are now being implemented in other municipalities in Holland and Germany, and are under consideration in the United States.

But left for the future is the idea that there might be wider lessons to be drawn from Drachten's experiment in letting people negotiate their relationships with one another with fewer rules standing in the way of better outcomes.



Blogger Johnny said...

The Intelligent Design people will jump on this and it won't last long - If spontaneous order didn't work we wouldn't be here at all.

September 28, 2009 3:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm an Engineer and have for years tried to convince friends and co-workers that regardless of traffic laws, the majority of people will drive safely depending on the conditions that the road will allow. The blank stares I get and that they believe anarchy will reign supreme and that chaos will ensue is amazing. There are studies which show that pretty much 85% of the people will drive at a safe speed for the road and yet there will be stop signs at every corner, speed limits too slow for the road and safety really takes a back seat as people are too engrossed in the signs to safety rather than beling alert and driving safely. About time someone starst questioning the status quo and shows that we are in fact the root of all ou own problems.

September 28, 2009 7:15 PM  
Blogger Kent McManigal said...

Anarchy WILL reign supreme (as it does in almost every area of our personal lives), and it will crowd out chaos, since they are mutually exclusive conditions (regardless of common misconceptions). Governments are "slow chaos" that people don't seem to recognize as chaos. Anarchy is order, and can be bewilderingly fast to those conditioned to accept slow chaos of government.

September 28, 2009 10:47 PM  
Blogger braunj said...

Some years ago the Federal government mandated right turn on red laws "except where posted". In Massachusetts, where the government always knows better than you do, they accepted the law and then posted No Right Turn On Red signs at EVERY intersection. In the ensuing years a lot of them have come down but officials admitted that they missed the chance to let people learn how to do it right. Now drivers just blow through any red light if they are turning right, no matter what the traffic. By not trusting people initially they only made things worse.

September 30, 2009 10:08 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The right turn on red rule is the greatest inmprovement to traffic laws I have ever seen. i wish more countries would adopt similar traffic flow rules.

September 30, 2009 12:42 PM  

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