Jeff runs reds in the middle of the desert
Last night, a police officer pulled me over for speeding through a blacked out intersection in the desolate wasteland formerly known as Teaneck, NJ. I thanked him for his civil service (and for letting me off with a “just be safe out there”), accepted my censure, swallowed my pride, and slowed down. When I approached the next intersection, I played a game of “You First – Me First” with two other cars, and we all escaped the game of chicken with our vehicles and lives intact.
Today, traffic in Northern New Jersey was particularly horrific. In addition to negotiating the labyrinth that is currently suburban New Jersey – its orange cones and fallen trees the cunning traps of a Daedalusian God – I survived signal-less four-ways and a share of wide-lefts. Using my eyes, hands, lights, and horn, I communicated with the aggravated mass of drivers, and I arrived at all my destinations a healthy and happy Minotaur.
The libertarian in me couldn’t help but spin this experience as an exercise in libertarian thought. Stereotypically, the anti-libertarian begins his tirade against libertarianism with the smug provocation, “But without government, who will build the roads?” Of course, no self-respecting anarchist will let this hanging curveball brush him off the plate. But your run-of-the-mill libertarian will probably agree that infrastructure construction and maintenance is a necessary or at least excusable function of government.
What about traffic signs and signals? The libertarian in the crowd would probably concede this point as well. After all, letting human beings operate motor vehicles without control or constraint is irresponsible and dangerous. The institution of traffic signs, signals, and rules mitigates the “negative externalities” of unbridled vehicle operation, those inevitable consequences (crashes and congestion) of the spontaneous interaction of drivers on the street.
My experience today, however, seemed to challenge this orthodoxy about traffic rules and regulations. Without the numbing aid of red, yellow, and green visual indicators, people became more conscientious drivers, actively paying attention to the cars and barriers around them. Rather than placing their trust in the functionality of an external traffic system, drivers sought their own self-preservation by maneuvering the streets cautiously and responsibly. Out of all this emerged a system of mutual cooperation, where people helped themselves out by helping out each other.
Adam Smith, anyone?
The notion that traffic signals actually impair the road transportation system is not without precedent. In his groundbreaking book Traffic, Tom Vanderbilt dedicates a whole chapter, titled “The Trouble with Traffic Signs,” to the unforeseen consequences of excessive signage. I couldn’t conjure an exact quote from the book (it’s nowhere to be found legally online and my car is out of gas, so no library), but much of the chapter focuses on the idea that our attention is a scarce resource and that traffic signs command too much of it to create an optimally safe driving environment. In the Summer 2008 edition of Wilson Quarterly, Vanderbilt details the experiment of Hans Monderman, a revolutionary Dutch traffic engineer who removed all traffic controls from the Dutch town of Drachten. Shockingly, a year after the change, traffic accidents had decreased by 50% despite a 33% increase in car traffic. The reason for such an effect, writes Vanderbilt, was the replacement of the “traffic world” with a “social world,” one where people interacted with other people and not with signs and lights. In a July 2008 Atlantic article, John Staddon corroborates Vanderbilt’s hypothesis. He writes, “Attending to a sign competes with attending to the road. The more you look for signs, for police, and at your speedometer, the less attentive you will be to traffic conditions.”
One of the underlying phenomena at play here is what economists call “moral hazard.” Moral hazard takes effect when people engage in riskier behavior in response to a perceived sense of security. “If I simply follow the instructions written on the signs,” says the victim of moral hazard, “nothing can harm me!” But of course this is not true. Signage can divert our attention from the important things on the road – other cars, pedestrians, bikers, and barriers – and give drivers a false sense of security.
But doesn’t the case of my speeding through an intersection on that dark Tuesday evening in Teaneck prove that we can’t simply trust drivers to engage responsibly with their surroundings? Well, I immediately learned from my mistake and permanently changed my behavior. If neighborhoods in America were ever to experiment with their roads like Hans Monderman did, there would obviously be a period of adjustment as people learned to properly engage with their surroundings. The “rules of the road”, however, would eventually evolve. Additionally, the infrastructure on which vehicles operate would inevitably evolve as well. We wouldn’t simply remove all signs and signals from major intersections and bid drivers good luck. Traffic circles would become more commonplace. Walkways would become more visible. And roadsides would adapt in ways we haven’t yet considered.
The deeper lesson here is twofold. First, people aren’t stupid. Yes, drunk drivers and visually impaired drivers and reckless drivers are stupid. But these morons will exist whether or not we have traffic signs dictating our driving behavior. When we have a group of individual drivers, each looking out to preserve his own safety, behaviors will emerge that create a safe driving environment for the entire community. Second, people respond to incentives and stimuli. When we create a traffic system that a) diverts our attention from the important tasks at hand and b) creates a false sense of security by transferring the onus of driving responsibility from the driver to the stop sign, people will respond in kind.
If today was any indication, it might not be such a bad idea to simplify our traffic control system. The roadways wouldn’t turn anarchic. Everything would probably be just fine.
 From An Enquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, Vol. 1: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest. We address ourselves not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities, but of their advantages.”
Or, if you prefer, “He intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was not part of his intention””