Distracting Miss Daisy

Why stop signs and speed limits endanger Americans

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.

Relatively recently—these things take a remarkably long time to sink in—I began to notice something else. Often when I return to the U.S. (usually to a suburban area in North Carolina’s Research Triangle), I see a fender bender or two within a few days. Yet I almost never see accidents in the U.K.

This surprised me, since the roads I drive here are generally wider, better marked, and less crowded than in the parts of England that I know best. And so I came to reflect on the mundane details of traffic-control policies in Great Britain and the United States. And 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.

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Driver Miseducation

I’ve spent my professional life studying adaptive behavior—how changes in the environment lead to changes in the ways humans and animals act. I’d contend that as traffic signs have proliferated in the U.S., drivers have adapted in profoundly unhealthy ways. We may imagine that driver training is something that happens to 16-year-olds in small cars labeled student driver. But of course we spend a lifetime on the roads after we get our licenses, and we’re being trained by our experiences every day. Let’s think about what drivers are actually learning on the roads in America.

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.

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Speed limits in the U.S. are perhaps a more severe safety hazard than stop signs. In many places, they change too frequently—sometimes every few hundred yards—once again training drivers to look for signs, not at the road. What’s more, many speed limits in the U.S. are set in arbitrary and irrational ways. An eight-lane interstate can have a limit of 50 to 70 mph or more. What makes the difference? A necessarily imperfect guess at probable traffic conditions. The road may sometimes be busy—so the limit is set low. But sometimes the road is not busy, and the safe speed is then much higher than the limit.

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A Traffic Free-for-All?

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.

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The miseducation that U.S. drivers are receiving is not as explicit as the instructions to these students, but it extends over years and is in some ways more forceful: the legal penalties for failing to notice traffic signs are severe. I believe that U.S. traffic policies are inducing a form of inattentional blindness in American drivers. When so many drivers say, after an accident, “I didn’t see him,” they’re not all lying.

Reblogged from an article by the author in The Atlantic