“But who will tame the savage drivers?”: A case for relaxing our traffic rules

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 cunning traps of a Daedalusian God”

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?[1]

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[2], 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[3], 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.”

Traffic by Tom Vanderbilt was a groundbreaking work and a national bestseller

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.


– Winch

[1] 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””


3 thoughts on ““But who will tame the savage drivers?”: A case for relaxing our traffic rules

  1. Keep this up and I’ll become a libertarian.

  2. But how long did it take you to get to your destination? Whenever traffic lights go down at major intersections in Beverly Hills or on Pico, yes, people manage, and nobody gets into accidents; but traffic backs up for miles as cars go one by one through an intersection that normally accommodates dozens of cars a minute. What you’re talking about can only work in areas with relatively light traffic to begin with. My experience in Casablanca, where they have signals but nobody follows them, was enough to convince me that they are absolutely one hundred percent necessary.

    • Zach,

      Thanks for your comment. You are absolutely right that traffic volume goes a long way in explaining both congestion and safety. In fact, studies have shown that volume is directly correlated to both travel times and fatalities (perhaps not surprisingly). It would certainly be interesting to find out the the marginal effectiveness of removing traffic signals as volume increases. Perhaps, at some volume, it makes little to no difference in terms of congestion whether or not there are signals (though I’d venture that safety would still be greater under a system without signals).

      Also, keep in mind what I said at the end of the post. A blacked out intersection in Teaneck or Pico (and ignored traffic signals in Casablanca) is not the same as a roundabout or traffic circle. In the first case, the intersection is confusing and temporary, causing extreme hesitation, which, in turn, causes a stop-and-go traffic pattern. In the second case, the intersection is institutionalized and familiar, and though congestion might be bad if there are a lot of cars, the flow of traffic will be smooth and constant. My anecdote about the intersection in Teaneck was obviously not scientific and mainly served as a hook to the post.

      Imagine a world in which all turns were navigated by traffic circles and not traffic lights. We would be yielding exclusively to vehicles, not to red lights. How many times have you stopped at a red light, only to realize that there is not a single other car in sight? The red light probably unnecessarily cost you a minute or so. Then the light turns green, and you step hard on the gas, only to be obstructed by another red light not more than 100 feet away. If we could step on the gas the second we saw the coast was clear, imagine all the minutes we could save.

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