Traffic reform a final frontier for American freedom

by Daniel Blomquist / Assistant Opinion Editor • December 4, 2014

Isn’t it weird how everyone besides you is an awful driver? It’s as if you’re the only one who can read the traffic signs, and everyone else’s only concern is making sure you get to your destination as slowly as possible. Given that an Allstate Insurance  survey showed that two-thirds of Americans think that they’re awesome drivers, some have started thinking that maybe the people are, for once, not the problem. Rather, some municipal governments have been experimenting with eliminating traffic signs and signals, and trusting motorists to not run into each other. While this may sound like a recipe for disaster, it’s been remarkably effective at  reducing traffic fatalities and traffic congestion.

We’ve already seen that placing more faith in drivers has worked here in America. In 1974, the government instituted a federal speed limit of 55 miles per hour. This was meant to reduce American gas consumption and make streets safer. It didn’t. When the law was repealed in 1995, Montana decided to repeal all of its speed limit laws in non-urban areas. Traffic fatalities didn’t go down, but they also didn’t go up. It turns out that people tend to drive at whatever speed they feel comfortable with and that speed limits just create busy work for police officers.

But the drastic reforms I’m talking about are in places like Poynton, England. Poynton has a population of about 14,000, and many residents work in the nearby Manchester, so over 26,000 vehicles travel through this tiny town every day, according to The Atlantic. where it was reported that the town removed its traffic signs, traffic lights, curbs and lanes. Instead, the town has implemented a traffic system referred to as “shared space.” Cars, bikes, and pedestrians are all equally entitled to the right of way, and there are no clear signals for drivers.

This system is based off of the studies and ideas of Hans Monderman, a Dutch traffic engineer. He told Wired in 2004 that the uncertainty of the system is intentional, meant to make people more cautious and focus on avoiding collisions rather than concentrating on specific traffic laws. This makes cars significantly less dominant on the road, to the point that it may actually put them at a disadvantage.

Changes in other municipalities take the idea of forced uncertainty too far, like the version implemented in the Dutch town of Drachten. The city built a playground in the middle of the road to encourage driver awareness, which is a ridiculous extreme. Children shouldn’t be endangered for the sake of instilling fear in bad drivers.

Still, the shared space system has been moderately successful around Europe with police statistics showing significant reductions in both traffic fatalities and road congestion. One British town, Ashford, hasn’t had a single traffic fatality since implementing the system three years ago. This isn’t just because drivers are terrified. Drivers are also no longer being flooded with information that doesn’t necessarily help them make safer decisions. Jorg Hennerkes, a representative from the German transportation ministry, told the German media corporation Deutsche Welle, “Many road signs are only put up so that we are covered for insurance purposes and not necessarily because they provide the driver with useful information.” It turns out that the secret to making people drive more safely is to take away the mechanisms that make them feel safe. 

The United States should implement the shared space policy slowly and responsibly in non-urban areas similar to the towns in Europe. The shared space system hasn’t been tested in urban areas and might not go well with American city structure, but there’s no reason that suburban and rural areas should be subjected to the same level of spatial hamstringing. Between our nation’s scandals with warrantless wiretapping, torture, and most recently, police brutality, other countries routinely prove themselves more free than our beloved “land of the free.” Other governments are simply more willing to trust their citizens and, this is one area where that’s really easy to see. Let’s show that we’re as mature as the rest of the world, if only on the truly open road.