NMA Email Newsletter: Issue #32

A Different Kind Of Distracted Driving

Last week’s email newsletter touched on the much-discussed issue of distracted driving. The meteoric rise in cell phone use, particularly with texting, has brought renewed focus on inattentive driving. The Christian Science Monitor published an article in June 2008 which points to a more pervasive cause of distracted driving – the over-regulation of U.S. traffic through roadway signs.

Per the article, British behavioral psychologist John Staddon believes traffic signs actually make streets more dangerous for motorists and pedestrians. He believes that traffic signs condition drivers to be less observant. Drivers trained to rely on instructional signs, rather than their own judgment, can create an “inattentional blindness.”

Staddon noted that while highways in the U.S. are wider, better marked, and less crowded than England, the minor accidents he comes across every day or two in the U.S. are rare occurrences in the U.K.

Per Staddon, “The American system of traffic control, with its many signs and stops, and with its specific rules tailored to every bend in the road, has had the unintended consequence of causing more accidents than it prevents. Paradoxically, almost every new sign put up in the U.S. probably makes drivers a little safer on the stretch of road it guards. But collectively, the forests of signs along American roadways, and the multitude of rules to look out for, are quite deadly.”

This is more than just an anecdotal observation. A few years ago, all regulatory traffic signs were removed from the city center of Drachten, a Dutch city with a population of about 50,000. Demarcations between roads and sidewalks were also stripped. Despite the free-for-all design, the steady stream of vehicular traffic flowed smoothly, and pedestrians walked the streets safely. “Right of way” became an instinctual process between motorists. Their collective sense of responsibility and consideration created a safe environment.

Der Speigel noted in 2006 that the number of accidents in Drachten “declined dramatically” after the open traffic design was implemented. Other European cities similarly minimized their traffic control systems with positive results.

The goal of U.S. traffic management should be to rely more on the inherent responsibleness of drivers, and less on micromanaging every movement and behavior by its motorists.

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