Dangerous safety signs

September 18, 2008 | By | 2 Replies More

In this month’s Wilson Quarterly, you can read Tom Vanderbilt’s delightful story about a Dutch traffic engineer  who made a town safer by making the people feel unsafe.

In the last few years, however, one traffic engineer did achieve a measure of global celebrity, known, if not exactly by name, then by his ideas. His name was Hans Monderman. The idea that made Monderman, who died of cancer in January at the age of 62, most famous is that traditional traffic safety ­infra­structure—­warning signs, traffic lights, metal railings, curbs, painted lines, speed bumps, and so ­on—­is not only often unnecessary, but can endanger those it is meant to protect.

As I drove with Monderman through the northern Dutch province of Friesland several years ago, he repeatedly pointed out offending traffic signs. “Do you really think that no one would perceive there is a bridge over there?” he might ask, about a sign warning that a bridge was ahead. “Why explain it?” He would follow with a characteristic maxim: “When you treat people like idiots, they’ll behave like idiots.”

What happens when you treat adults like adults?

As I watched the intricate social ballet that occurred as cars and bikes slowed to enter the circle (pedestrians were meant to cross at crosswalks placed a bit before the intersection), Monderman performed a favorite trick. He walked, backward and with eyes closed, into the Laweiplein. The traffic made its way around him. No one honked, he wasn’t struck. Instead of a binary, mechanistic process—stop, go—the movement of traffic and pedestrians in the circle felt human and ­organic.

A year after the change, the results of this “extreme makeover” were striking: Not only had congestion decreased in the ­intersection—­buses spent less time waiting to get through, for ­example—­but there were half as many accidents, even though total car traffic was up by a third. Students from a local engineering college who studied the intersection reported that both drivers and, unusually, cyclists were using ­signals—­of the electronic or hand ­variety—­more often. They also found, in surveys, that residents, despite the measurable increase in safety, perceived the place to be more dangerous. This was music to Monderman’s ears. If they had not felt less secure, he said, he “would have changed it immediately.”

Monderman’s ideas have proven quite successful, both in small villages and in larger cities. While he was alive, Monderman successfully convinced many cities to kick out the “crutches” of those drivers who not only didn’t need so many traffic signs, but who stopped thinking because of them, oftentimes recklessly.

Traffic signs, for Monderman, were an invitation to stop thinking, to stop acting on one’s own volition. In streets designed to safely handle the actions of the riskiest participants, everyone slips into riskier behavior. As he put it to me, “There are so many things that can be forbidden. The stranger thing is that we believe everything that isn’t forbidden is allowed.”

As I read this article, I pondered the extent to which so many other “safety features” built into our world might also endanger us by giving us a false sense of confidence.   Think of the many federal regulatory agencies that are supposedly watching over Americans, agencies such as the SEC, FCC, FDA and USDA.  Think of all those warnings pasted on bottles of stuff that we really shouldn’t take–and we might not take except that we asume that some agency has vigorously tested the product.   Think of our willingness to trust large financial companies because we assume that they are regulated, whereas many of these big companies actually run Washington, DC.  Think of our complacency regarding so much of what transpires in Washington DC because it is so often suggested by the government and the media that someone in some agency is watching out for us, when it is not apparently true.  Not in light of the horrific failures of financial institutions, the over-consolidation of big media companies, the duplicity of pharmaceutical companies and the well-publicized failure of the USDA to make adequate inspections of various food products.

Maybe if we eliminated these agencies (not something I’m really suggesting), Americans wouldn’t be so gullible.

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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.

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  1. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    Along a similar them, German delivery drivers following the voice guided directions from their GPS devices, occasionally turn before the intersection and crash their vehicles into buildings, retaining walls and other permanent structures.

    Part of the problem is distraction.

  2. Pat Whalen says:

    Maybe if we eliminated these agencies (not something I’m really suggesting), Americans wouldn’t be so gullible.

    Part of the problem here is that a failed safety device is more dangerous that no safety device at all. If there are government agencies whose mission is to guarantee the safety say food or the effectiveness of drugs and they don't do that then that is a problem. In that case it would be better they didn't exist.

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