Monday, November 20, 2006

Traffic Signs and Thinking Minds

Sometimes you wonder whether a story is a spoof. Apparently, it's real - seven European cities are felling their traffic signs and signals, and asking drivers to be thoughtful and considerate!

Bravo! It may be a function of our highly regulated culture that I am initially slightly nervous at the prospect of removing the road signs. My first reaction is wonder if we can make it without someone telling us how to handle each junction. But pretty quickly the 'less is more' instinct kicks in. Best government is small. Best legislation is minimal and simple.

The linked article is littered with unhelpful terms like 'anarchy' and 'utopia'. Of course, this is neither. It is a realisation that the more busybody regulation lumped on people, the less they think. Someone finally had the courage to ask - what if we allow intelligent people to engage their own brains? What if the driver is actually best placed to make his own decisions?

My favourite quotes from the article are: "The many rules strip us of the most important thing: the ability to be considerate." That's right! Rules replace thinking.

..And: "The glut of prohibitions is tantamount to treating the driver like a child and it also foments resentment. He may stop in front of the crosswalk, but that only makes him feel justified in preventing pedestrians from crossing the street on every other occasion. Every traffic light baits him with the promise of making it over the crossing while the light is still yellow."

This does not mean there are no road rules at all. And a legal framework is still necessary to judge situations when things go wrong. It's just a huge shift in balance... coming at the same problem from an entirely different angle. And apparently it's working - from the article, "the number of accidents has declined dramatically."

Traffic-light controlled intersections are governed by computers. Anyone who has sat at a red-light on an otherwise deserted intersection knows the unique blend of humiliation and fury of trying to reason with the machine-in-charge.

This is why round-abouts work so well... though an entire mystery to our American cousins. They give a guiding direction to the traffic flow rather than interrupting and controlling it. The rules are simple and elegant - go clockwise... give way to those already on the round-about - that's about it! It scales beautifully from the lonely white circle painted in a village centre to the huge garden-planted island in a city rush-hour.

Most shoking of all about this story is that someone in the European Union is actually thinking about trusting people rather than bossing them around.

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