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Do traffic laws cause accidents?

Some cities have scrapped all the traffic rules, with positive results.

By Blogger for The Christian Science Monitor / June 25, 2008



In this month's Atlantic, behavioral psychologist John Staddon puts forth that traffic signs actually make streets more dangerous.

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Signs, says Mr. Staddon, condition drivers to be less observant: instead of looking at the situation in front of them, drivers look off to the side of the road, looking for the sign to tell them how to drive. By continuously training drivers to rely on signs instead of their own judgment, traffic authorities are cultivating what psychologists call "inattentional blindness."

Staddon says that Great Britain has a far more sensible approach to traffic control. There are very few mandatory stops in Britain; the stop "signs" are just dashes in the road, and they don't really mean stop, just yield. Instead of four-way stop signs and their Byzantine rules, the Brits frequently use "roundabouts" (translation: traffic circles) whose only rule is to give way to traffic coming from the right (translation: the left). In Britain, speed limits are determined by road type, and are not as seemingly arbitrary as they are in the US.

The result, says Staddon, is safer roads:

Detailed statistics show that as of 2003, fatalities per mile traveled were 36 percent greater in the U.S. than they were in the U.K. Traffic deaths per million people show an even greater disparity through 2006, the most recent year for which full statistics are available. If the U.S. death rate were the same as the U.K.’s, roughly 6,000 fewer Americans would die each year—that’s half again as many Americans as have died in Iraq in the past five years.

So if removing some traffic signs makes the streets a little safer, wouldn't it follow that removing all signs would make it a lot safer?

The available evidence says yes. In the past few years, several European cities have fomented this kind of vehicular anarchy right in their town centers, with positive results.

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