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Motor Mouth articles 2006

A little light relief

The end of the road for traffic lights?

A LEADING road expert has come up with a formidable new weapon in the battle to make our streets safer: fear.

Make road-users afraid and they’ll be more cautious – that’s his theory. And the main plank in his curiously refreshing strategy is to do away with most traffic lights.

Hans Monderman, one of Europe’s top traffic planners, reckons lights make our roads more dangerous because drivers relax. With a free-for-all they’re far more cautious.

He is involved in an EC-backed project known as Shared Space, which is currently focusing on an experiment in the smallish Dutch town of Drachten. Residents are being used as guinea-pigs to test Mr Monderman’s theory.

Twelve of the town’s 15 sets of traffic lights have been removed and the rest will be gone soon. The results have been remarkable. Previously the town witnessed a road fatality on average every three years; in the seven years since the traffic light removal began, there have been none.

There have, of course, been plenty of minor collisions, but Mr Monderman remarks: “We want small accidents in order to prevent serious ones in which people get hurt. // It works well because it is dangerous, which is exactly what we want.

“But it shifts the emphasis away from the Government taking the risk to the driver being responsible for his or her own risk. We only want traffic lights where they are useful and I haven’t found anywhere yet where they are useful.”

He draws comparisons with an ice rink. “Skaters work out things for themselves and it works wonderfully well. I am not an anarchist, but I don’t like rules which are ineffective. Street furniture tells people how to behave.”

And if motorists are made more wary, they behave more carefully. Traffic of all sorts moves slowly around Drachten but at least it does move – unlike more traditional road configurations where sudden stops, long queues and high-speed darts tend to characterise traffic movements.

The outcome has been that people drive with far greater care but get to their destinations sooner. Tailbacks have been consigned to history and the sound of a tooting horn is a rarity.

The good people of Drachten have voted the experiment a winner and now it remains to be seen whether the scheme will be extended elsewhere.

It all seems to confirm the belief of many British motorists: as soon as the lights fail, traffic moves more freely. It probably wouldn’t work everywhere but there must be plenty of places in this country where it would be effective.

It’s not often that taking positive inaction bears fruit but this could just be one of them.

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