11.6.08

HOW OTHERS SEE US.

The Atlantic's John Staddon evaluates U.S. road traffic control.
I grew up in Great Britain, and over the past five years I’ve split my time between England and the United States. I’ve long found driving in the U.S. to be both annoying and boring. Annoying because of lots of unnecessary waits at stop signs and stoplights, and because of the need to obsess over speed when not waiting. Boring, scenery apart, because to avoid speeding tickets, I feel compelled to set the cruise control on long trips, driving at the same mind-numbing rate, regardless of road conditions.
He doesn't mention another difference: the slow reaction time of U.S. drivers to a traffic light change. Or perhaps I'm projecting my own irritation with maltimed traffic lights and he's subsumed the slow-thinking sport-ute jockey in with the poor timing and the left arrows. The left arrows, however, are a symptom of a larger complaint.
I began to think that the American system of traffic control, with its many signs and stops, and with its specific rules tailored to every bend in the road, has had the unintended consequence of causing more accidents than it prevents. Paradoxically, almost every new sign put up in the U.S. probably makes drivers a little safer on the stretch of road it guards. But collectively, the forests of signs along American roadways, and the multitude of rules to look out for, are quite deadly.
The signage attenuates situational awareness. Take stop signs. Please.
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.
He then addresses the four-way stop sign, something that isn't used in Britain.
The four-way stop deserves special recognition as a masterpiece of counterproductive public-safety efforts. Where should the driver look? What must he remember? State driving manuals can be surprisingly coy about exactly what drivers should do at four-way stops. The North Carolina Driver’s Handbook, for example, doesn’t mention four-ways as a separate category at all. Yahoo Answers imparts the following wisdom: “The rules for a four-way stop are like those for a two-way: Stop and look for oncoming traffic, and proceed when it is safe to do so.” So far so good, but then: “You may occasionally arrive at a four-way stop sign at the same time as another driver. In such cases the driver to the right has the right of way. However, not all drivers know this. If someone to your left decides to go first, let them!” Thanks! But remind me: aside from bewildering the driver, what’s the point of stopping traffic in all four directions?
The four way stop usually replaces a two-way stop, and it's installed after traffic volume has reached a level at which drivers on the inferior road begin taking risks to get through gaps in the superior road traffic that have little margin of error. In Illinois, there are rules, based on traffic counts and on accident rates, that govern the installation of four-way stop signs. There are similar rules that govern the replacement of stop signs with traffic lights. Because traffic lights are more expensive, the volume and fatality thresholds are set higher. (This application of the cost-benefit principle comes as a surprise to some students. Rules written in blood.)

The rules, however, do provide for some confusion.
The four-way stop weakens the force of all stop signs by muddling the main question drivers need to answer, namely: Which road has priority? And indeed, American drivers have apparently become confused enough by this question that some communities are now beginning to affix another sign to the poles of stop signs that aren’t four-way, warning CROSS TRAFFIC DOES NOT STOP.
Mr Staddon proposes to simplify.
What I propose is more modest: the adoption of something like the British traffic system, which is free of many of the problems that plague American roads. One British alternative to the stop sign is just a dashed line on the pavement, right in front of the driver. It actually means “yield,” not “stop”; it tells the driver which road has the right of way. Another alternative is the roundabout. Roundabouts in the U.S. are typically large. But as drivers get used to them—as they have in the U.K. over the past three or four decades—they can be made smaller and smaller. A “mini-roundabout” in the U.K. is essentially just a large white dot in the middle of the intersection. In this form, it amounts to no more than an instruction to give way to traffic coming from the right (that would be the left over here, of course, since the Brits drive on the left).
Ah, yes, rotaries. (There is a wrinkle here: at one time Massachusetts road rules gave the right of way to cars already in the rotary while New York gave the right of way to cars entering it.) There are a few in the southwest suburbs of Milwaukee, including at least one that has traffic lights controlling entry to it?? So far, none of the interlaced circles the British sometimes provide at five- or six-way junctions. I like rotaries. Many native Midwesterners do not. The mind boggles at a cell-phone distracted Hummer driver attempting to keep a large white dot to port. (Via Market Power).

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