To make the roads safer, get rid of some of those traffic safety signs

May 7, 2007 | By | 6 Replies More

According to this article in Discover, less can be more when it comes to road signs.   The “risk compensation effect” is a recognition that animals “tend to adjust their behavior to compensate for perceived risk.”

A team of urban planners has concluded that traffic signs and signals actually make the roads more dangerous “because they lead us to believe we are safe.”

“Conventional highway engineering operates on the dumb molecule theory of human behavior,” says John Adams, emeritus professor of geography at University College London and a Shared Space advocate. “And the human molecule is responsive to what it sees about it.”

Today five American cities are trying the approach, and seven major pilot projects are in the works across Europe. The town of Drachten in the Netherlands has only 2 of its 18 traffic lights left. Since the program began in 2004, accident rates at the town’s main intersection have dropped to only one per year from a previous nine-year average of just over eight, congestion has fallen by 20 percent, and journey times have been reduced by 10 minutes. Stripping London’s busy High Street Kensington shopping area of some of its signage, lights, and pedestrian barriers reduced traffic-related casualties by 43 percent. After the English town of Seend went bare, it witnessed a 5 percent fall in average speed, and accidents dropped by a third. Shared Space’s success is about more than safety, Adams says. “I think that there is a dawning collective guilt about how we’ve allowed the car to wreck not just the physical environment but also the social environment.

This article notes that the “risk compensation effect” might explain why bicycle riders with helmets are more likely to get struck by cars. 


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Category: Communication, Psychology Cognition

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (6)

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  1. Vicki Baker says:

    Very timely post, with Bike to Work week coming up. It was interesting that the reason for a higher accident rate for helmet-wearing cyclists was not because of cyclist behavior, but because of the effect on car drivers – they passed closer to cyclists wearing helmets. I'm glad you think I'm safer wearing a helmet, but please, keep your distance!

  2. grumpypilgrim says:

    Curiously, gender made more of a difference on drivers than did wearing a helmet. Perhaps my next bike accessory should be a fake ponytail attached to my helmet.

    On the topic of making roads safer, I am skeptical about that research. It reported that removing traffic signs made people drive more cautiously. First, the research seemed to consist of only a few anecdotal examples — hardly enough to turn that correlation into an argument for causality. Second, I would bet that the reason people drove more cautiously was simply that the signage *changed*, not necessarily that removing signage is some silver bullet. Change creates unknowns and is often confusing, both of which cause people to slow down and act more deliberately. Thus, whether signage is added, removed or simply altered, I would bet that all of these things would cause drivers to be more careful. The research tested only one of these three scenarios.

  3. Erich Vieth says:

    Here's another article suggesting that fewer traffic lights would result in safer and more efficient traffic flow:

    Traffic lights are inefficient: they make us wait at red even when no one is using the green. Time and again they interrupt our progress, often needlessly. Rooted in a misreading of human psychology, they override common sense. Busy cities already rely on universal cooperation; we don't have lights for pedestrians on pavements, yet even when they are packed with shoppers, everybody gets along. Traffic controls outlaw discretion, generate stress and provoke aggression. What happens when controls are absent? Left to its own devices at junctions where the lights are out of action, traffic disperses without incident or delay. Free of vexatious rules, we approach junctions slowly and filter. A London cabbie says: "You've just got to be a bit more careful, that's all."

    For the full article, see here.

  4. Erich Vieth says:

    the citizens of Bohmte decided to take a big risk. Since September, they've been tearing up the sidewalks, removing curbs and erasing street markers as part of a radical plan to abandon nearly all traffic regulations and force people to rely on common sense and courtesy instead.

    This contrarian approach to traffic management, known as shared space, is gaining a foothold in Europe. Towns in the Netherlands, Denmark, Britain and Belgium have tossed out their traffic lights and stop signs in a bid to reclaim their streets for everyone.

    Practically speaking, the shared space concept works only at intersections that attract fewer than 15,000 vehicles a day, said Juergen Gerlach, a professor at the Center of Traffic and Transport at the University of Wuppertal.

  5. Did grumpy just claim that female bikers get better treatment than the poor guys? 😀

  6. Erich Vieth says:

    projektleiterin: Grumpy has indeed made that claim. He based in on this study:,,2-2352964…

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