More than ten years ago, we reported the fascinating results achieved in Drachten, a small city in The Netherlands that eliminated all traffic signs only to find that out of sanctioned chaos came order. And unending driver courtesy. And a greater sense of safety for all road users.
A couple of excerpts from A Different Kind of Distracted Driving, NMA E-Newsletter #32:
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.
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.
Our update on the lessons of Drachten is illustrated by the following 92-second video of recent traffic from Siem Reap, Cambodia:
We’re not sure we’d have a greater sense of security while traversing this free-for-all, unregulated intersection, but as other video taken at the same intersection has shown, the traffic throughput and shared courtesy are extraordinary. Over the 1-1/2 minutes shown in the clip, nearly 60 vehicles, scooters, and pedestrians crossed through the intersection safely. Horn honking, usually a sign of anger and aggression in America, is at a minimum and typically used to offer a helpful signal to other travelers.
We are by no means endorsing the elimination of all traffic signs and regulations in the United States and Canada. But with distracted driving a leading cause of accidents and fatalities here, traffic engineers would do well to reduce the clutter of roadway instructions that, in addition to myriad in-cabin controls, displays, and alarms provided by automakers to fiddle with, preoccupy a driver’s vision.