Traffic signs on American roadways are so numerous and so distracting to drivers that they are having the opposite effect intended, writes John Staddon.
"Consider the stop sign. It seems innocuous enough; we do need to stop from time to time. But think about how the signs are actually set up and used. For one thing, there's the placement of the signs-off to the side of the road, often amid trees, parked cars, and other road signs; rarely right in front of the driver, where he or she should be looking.
Then there's the sheer number of them. They sit at almost every intersection in most American neighborhoods. In some, every intersection seems to have a four-way stop. Stop signs are costly to drivers and bad for the environment: stop/start driving uses more gas, and vehicles pollute most when starting up from rest. More to the point, however, the overabundance of stop signs teaches drivers to be less observant of cross traffic and to exercise less judgment when driving-instead, they look for signs and drive according to what the signs tell them to do."
"A particularly vexing aspect of the U.S. policy is that speed limits seem to be enforced more when speeding is safe. A more systematic effort to train drivers to ignore road conditions can hardly be imagined. By training drivers to drive according to the signs rather than their judgment in great conditions, the American system also subtly encourages them to rely on the signs rather than judgment in poor conditions, when merely following the signs would be dangerous.
So what am I suggesting-abolishing signs and rules? A traffic free-for-all? Actually, I wouldn't be the first to suggest that. A few European towns and neighborhoods-Drachten in Holland, fashionable Kensington High Street in London, Prince Charles's village of Poundbury, and a few others-have even gone ahead and tried it. They've taken the apparently drastic step of eliminating traffic control more or less completely in a few high-traffic and pedestrian-dense areas. The intention is to create environments in which everyone is more focused, more cautious, and more considerate. Stop signs, stoplights, even sidewalks are mostly gone. The results, by all accounts, have been excellent: pedestrian accidents have been reduced by 40 percent or more in some places, and traffic flows no more slowly than before."