Wednesday, February 09, 2005

‘If you want to make a junction safe, you want to make it dangerous’

I was astounded by a sentence in a Wall Street Journal story about traffic problems in Houston that claimed that the Dutch were "pushing a radical idea" to do away with traffic signs and signals altogether, to create chaos so dangerous that drivers would be forced to be more careful and more aware. I thought it couldn't possibly be true, but sure enough, I came across this link that gives some details. It some ways the idea of making things more dangerous to make them safe is so insane that its brilliant. It seems at first to be extremist libertarianism in action: People don't need the government telling them what to do at an intersection; they can figure it out themselves and learn important lessons in personal responsibilty. It's entirely in keeping with the "individuals are responsible enough to make their own choices about recreational drugs" position as well. But as the link explains, the strategy "is rooted in the idea that the social nature of the town street should be emphasised above its highway nature; that people should be encouraged to interact with each other, rather than be aggressive or rail against those who have not obeyed the traffic laws. As Monderman [of the Friesland Regional Organisation for Traffic Safety] says, “the biggest mistake that we as traffic engineers can make is to give people the illusion of safety”.

Anyone who has commuted in a car through rush hour traffic knows how anti-social driving is, and can make you feel. A car isolates you and implies that you are above the average Joe sharing a bus ride or waiting for a train; its whole ideology suggests that a car is so crucial to own because you make the decision of when to go anywhere, and nothing stands in your way. Except, of course, for all the other drivers, equally isolated and expecting total autonomy. To the American driver, other cars aren't people, they are impediments, stubborn intrusions that were not part of the advertising dreamworld of open highways and freedom. It's difficult not to resent these cars and their inexplicable, unwelcome presence, and it's hard not to think that there ought to be a law against them. The demand one feels for total priority is as irrational as it is irresistible as your driving a car in the suburbs. So it makes good sense to force people into recognizing other cars as being piloted by people, and to require some sort of civil communication with them, and not to have the system rely on non-contextual rules imposed from above, often with very little application to local snafus. Rather than have a Byzantine set of laws to negotiate conflicting claims of rights, do away with the abstract notion of right-of-way altogether, and force it to be haggled on an ad hoc basis. Driving could become more like negotiating 57th Street on foot, with the host of gestures and signals you must put out to other people so that they don't run into you.

Of course Americans will never have such a system, because it implies that you must be thoughtful and considerate and aware of other people, all things that the ethos of personal convenience and selfish individualism (the pillars of the capitalist consumer economy) militates against. If you have to approach intersections with caution and awareness, how can you still talk on your phone?

But drivers in my neighborhood in Queens have thoughtfully taken on this Dutch program of their own accord, flagrantly disregarding all signs and signals while freely sharing their opinion (usually in Greek) of your pedestrian shufflings.


  1. The make-it-unsafe-to-make-it-safe argument is interesting, but the concept fails because people all have different ideas of what safe it. New York is a no-harm, no-foul town as it is. With fewer restrictions, anybody could take the risk that they deem appropriate relative to the possible consequences to themselves, and, likely, irrespective of potential consequences to others. I ran you over? That's your problem. Anyway, New York cops don't enforce driving laws as it is. Parking regulations, sure, but not driving. I'm not wrong. Walk out to the corner of 57th and Broadway any time. You'll see several cars run the red light, not occasionally, not often, but every single fucking time the light changes. They do it because they can, and the car that finally stops does so to avoid a collision, not to avoid a ticket. I've never seen a cop pinch someone for that, though they could make a million bucks in two hours giving perfectly appropriate summonses.

  2. Although not directly related, below is a link that readers of this post might find interesting. It discusses the utter disregard that American automobile manufacturers have for pedestrian safety.

  3. I think this is, more or less, a case of the tragedy of the commons and a game of chicken. It pretty much comes down to the fact that people are greedy. This is not what we need. I drive a small fuel efficient car, not a Hummer. The larger car goes first theory will make me an even MORE of an angry person.