Safety Through Singing Streets

Nate Berg's picture
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A bit of bizarre news caught my attention recently and it got me thinking. It was about these roads in Japan that had been designed to play music as cars drive over them. The engineers behind this idea cut thousands of grooves into the roadway, separated them by certain specific intervals, and then drove their cars. What resulted is a weird humming melody that reverberates in the cars as they drive. The video linked below showing the roads and their songs is awesome, but so much more could be done.

Singing Road Video Still

These singing streets are an impressive novelty, but this idea could be far better utilized to improve road safety. Using this same sort of groove-cutting, sound-producing method, it seems like road engineers could make major progress in the reduction of traffic accidents.

Slicing grooves into new roads as they approach intersections and stop signs, for instance, would be a pretty simple way to keep drivers alert. Maybe I'm trivializing a major engineering feat, I don't really know. But it seems fairly reasonable to me, especially since most of the hard work has already been done by the innovative engineers at Japan's Hokkaido Industrial Research Institute.

Crosswalk technology, "Rumble Strip"What I'm suggesting doesn't have to be an elaborate symphony on the road, just a simple ascending tone that would get higher and higher as a car approached an intersection. A stop sign can be overlooked or obstructed by trees, but a reverberating sound inside the cab of a vehicle is pretty hard to not notice. This would, in my mind, be a very effective way to reduce the rate of cars crashing into pedestrians, cyclists, trains and other cars. This method has already been utilized along the sides of highways across the country in the form of "rumble strips", jarring drivers with a loud noise if they slip too far into the shoulder.

This proposed method would not only be effective, but cheap, too. That's right, fellow taxpayers, our public-good streets can be safer without costing us any additional cash. Say goodbye to flashing (and often confusing) pedestrian crossing signs and those energy-dependent blinking road bumps in the crosswalk. Imprinting grooves in the pavement means using less pavement, and you don't have to be an economist to understand those savings. This method is what environmental scientists refer to as a "passive" technique – meaning no energy is required to maintain operation. Just cut ‘em up and let the sounds work their life-saving magic. At least that's how I assume it would work.

Common "traffic calming" techniques like speed bumps and bulb-outs have been known to be effective, but they require additional construction and materials, amounting to additional costs to the taxpayer. Putting a little bit of effort into finding the right groove spacing to make the roads actually communicate with drivers would be an insignificant cost compared to that of the traditional bumps and bulges. And when weighed against the lives it would save, the cost would be negligible. We're probably not going to stop building roads in this country any time soon, so we might as well do whatever our stressed infrastructure budget will allow to make them as safe as possible.
Nate Berg is a contributing editor for Planetizen and freelance journalist.

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