Putting a Stop to Traffic Signals?

The Telegraph describes how a Dutch town gave up traffic lights. Strangely enough the result was reduced accidents and increased traffic flow.

The project is the brainchild of Mr Monderman, and the town has seen some remarkable results. There used to be a road death every three years but there have been none since the traffic light removal started seven years ago.

There have been a few small collisions, but these are almost to be encouraged, Mr Monderman explained. “We want small accidents, in order to prevent serious ones in which people get hurt,” he said yesterday.

“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.

The idea is that people who have to decide for themselves when to go or stop will take more care in doing so; also, they won’t hinder traffic by waiting for lights when there is no need to.

As someone who’s driven thousands of miles around Europe in some of the wildest driving conditions (Italy and Russia), I think a good way to explain the difference is between “free market” and “socialistic” driving systems, roughly speaking. The United States has an authoritarian, “socialistic” traffic system. With a few notable exceptions such as the drivers here in Boston, most people adhere to a strict, top-down system of traffic management.

Italians for example, especially those around Naples, have more of a “free market” system of driving. Not by design, as in the Netherlands test, but because Italians just ignore traffic laws. The result seems to work well; everyone gets around without a noticeably greater accident rate. In fact, studies I’ve read indicate that it’s Germany–with strict traffic regulations similar to those in the U.S.–that has one of the highest serious accident rates.

Think of it as the invisible hand applied to traffic flow. Besides, there’s something a lot of fun about roundabouts. So here’s my vote to use them in place of the dangerous and traffic-hindering traffic lights.


  1. During most of the twentieth century, there was a long, narrow vertical-lift bridge over the Missouri that connected Roosevelt and Richland Counties in Montana for both trains and motor vehicles. Although a long bridge that allowed only one-way traffic and was shared with railroad trains should have been spectacularly hazardous, very few accidents occurred on the Snowden Bridge. A 1981 study attributed its good safety record to the fact that it was “so dangerous that it [was] safe.” That is, drivers were extraordinarily cautious when crossing.

  2. can’t tell you how many accidents there have been at the intersection where i live. germans (at least those who live in hamburg) are pretty impatient too. the light hasn’t turned green for 1 second and already you hear horns honking.

    one interesting observation, however, is the difference between pedestrians in london and hamburg. if the light is red, most londoners will just cross the street. in hamburg, however, most will wait until the light turns green–even if there aren’t any cars in sight! i have seen a lot of people break this rule and of course i’ve been guilty myself (usually only when i’m in a rush though!), but it seems that more folks adhere to the law than break it. and if you jaywalk across a street where there is a dog or child on the other side, be prepared to get a lecture at how you are being a bad example!

    i have heard that disobeying traffic laws as a pedestrian or bicyclist can get you points on your driving record–even if you don’t have a license! how’s that for credit?

  3. I see Der Spiegel says this is something Germany and the US might be interested in implementing. I certainly would welcome more roundabouts here.

  4. My town’s up to a whopping two roundabouts, out of hundreds of traffic lights, perhaps more. Not at all ironic, it’s incredibly dangerous to drive here!

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