At Least with Traffic, Fewer Rules Make for Better Behavior

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Officials in Drachten, Holland, wanted to reduce accidents and injuries on the town’s roads, so they turned to a traffic engineer with an unusual idea: eliminate rules. Hans Monderman believes that people are more careful when they are subject to fewer commandments and less direction. So he removed road signs, traffic lights and even markings. The so-far positive results suggest that better results may well come from letting people make ad hoc arrangements on the spot than from subjecting them to top-down control.

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Part of the problem is that regulations seem to create a false sense of security – and entitlement. A recent British study found that drivers actually give bicyclists less room when cycle lanes are explicitly marked on the road. Leaving the road unmarked creates greater perceived danger and forces drivers to make their own arrangements – generally creating a safer situation for bicyclists. The same dynamic, Monderman claims, prevails in all traffic situations. Leave drivers, cyclists and pedestrians to their own devices, and they come to better arrangements than any that can be forced on them.

So far, the data seems to support Monderman’s theory. At least one report (PDF) on Drachten’s traffic experiment found a significant drop in accidents and injuries after traffic signals were removed at a busy intersection – from between four and ten a year before the change to one per year thereafter. Traffic also began to move faster through the intersection even as it became safer. "On the busiest streets average times to cross the intersection have fallen from 50 seconds to about 30 seconds."

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September 22, 2009

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