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Thursday, December 28, 2006

Give Me a Sign

Those of us who have been entrusted with a license to operate a motor vehicle on our nation's roadways know the freedom and independence that go along with that. But we also know - all too well - the accompanying frustration and danger: dodging idiots who think they own the road, dealing with frightened drivers who have no idea how to merge, getting stuck behind someone with the neurological disorder that makes them subtract 25 from every speed limit sign, or just having to sit in rush hour traffic without your iPod. (I'm still trying to figure out why it's called "rush hour," but that's another issue altogether.)

One of the biggest concerns drivers face is paying attention to all those annoying traffic signs. How can we be expected to deal with all the normal distractions of driving while at the same time having to read each and every little sign thrown at us? Could it be that they do more harm than good? From a recent Boston Globe article:
    Picture yourself on a typical morning commute. You start out with a few suburban streets, then some arterial roads, a few miles of open interstate, and finish off with a nice refreshing bumper to bumper crawl to the office.

    Let's say the trip takes you about half an hour, and you cover about 10 miles. During that time you'll pass well more than 100 different traffic control markers - everything from speed limit signs to pedestrian crosswalks to traffic lights. Disobeying these markers is illegal, and could potentially be fatal. But you disobey them all the time. Not because you're a scofflaw, but because you don't see them, even when they're in plain sight.

    According to some researchers who study the psychology of driving, an overabundance of traffic signs makes drivers less likely to pay attention to any of them. And yet at the same time, drivers also pay less attention to their surroundings, secure in the knowledge that there will be instructions quite literally at every turn.
So, why not just get rid of those pesky signs? Well, some people think that's exactly what we should do:
    The researchers say the solution to this problem is to reduce - or perhaps even eliminate - traffic signage. It's a solution the European Union, for one, is giving a try.

    The idea is that with fewer signs telling you how to behave, you'll pay more attention to the ones that are left. And because you'll be forced to figure more things out for yourself, you'll pay more attention to driving as well.
But isn't the whole point of having traffic signs to keep things simple so that we don't have to think? How can getting rid of traffic signs be a good thing? The article continues:
    "There's an optimal level of workload. When there's less info, drivers have to concentrate more," says David A. Noyce, who directs the Wisconsin Traffic Operations and Safety Laboratory at the University of Wisconsin. He says when there are fewer signs, drivers naturally start focusing on other cues (the speed of cars ahead of them, for example) to determine how to safely proceed.

    The champion of this "less is more" philosophy is a Dutch traffic engineer named Hans Monderman. Monderman designs intersections and town squares with no traffic signage whatsoever - no stop signs, no crosswalks, nothing. These places handle substantial daily traffic, yet with better accident rates than they had back when they were festooned with warnings. (Monderman has been known to demonstrate the safety of his designs by blithely stepping into traffic and walking across one of his highway intersections. Backwards.)

    A number of European towns are now implementing Monderman's ideas, and the European Union is experimenting with traffic sign-free zones in seven cities, from Ipswich, England, to Ejby, Denmark.
Can we expect America to follow suit? Not quite:
    Here in the United States we've yet to embrace the notion of ripping out our traffic signs, and Noyce doesn't see that happening anytime soon. He says our expectation of heavy signage is too ingrained.

    So, what's the fix for traffic sign fatigue? Noyce says in many cases redundant signs can be safely removed. But he also thinks a big part of the solution is designing better roads to begin with, ones that are engineered with safe driving behavior in mind. "There is a problem across the US with using signage to try to solve engineering problems. Traffic engineers believe when things are not working well the solution is to just throw another sign up there."
Why are the simplest solutions always the most difficult to implement here in the "Land of the Free"? I think the answer is that people like being told what to do. Living in a free society requires thinking. Worse, it requires exercising a little personal responsibility. And we don't want that, now, do we?

1 comment:

Jennifer said...

You know. It's true. Everyone driving slower than me is an idiot, and everyone driving faster than me is a moron.
It's like I always say. Clowns to the left of me , jokers to the right.

But that's a really intriguing concept of less signs! I like it. in America...ugh. Drivers can be--ok, ARE--so dumb. In Europe, they can actually implement roundabouts. Those intersections without signs or traffic lights. You just merge to the right and go around the circle until your "exit."

Here in good ol' US of A people don't understand that concept. Nor do they understand the "yield" concept. It's saddening, really.

Anyway. Don't get me started on anything traffic related. Should my impatience and temper regarding the idiocy of other drivers be vanquished, I would be much improved.

Maybe less signs would help.....

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