Information overload is endangering urban road users

Imagine if tomorrow morning your local authority decided to remove all yield, stop and other such signage as well as traffic lights, pedestrian crossings etc, from your village, town, or city? Well up until last Monday, I would have cringed at such a prospect.

However as one of the delegates who attended the annual Automotive Forum, organised by the Irish Motoring Writers Association (IMWA ) and sponsored by Semperit Tyres, I opened my mind to this suggestion. I listened as evidence was presented on how overloading the motorist with traffic lights and road signs can increase road crashes in urban areas. And that handing more responsibility to the driver can result in a spectacularly positive change in behaviour.

An audience from the motoring, town planning, and other sectors came together this week at Newman House in Dublin to hear two expert international speakers talk about how our streetscapes are over-regulating us as drivers, and how car technology is changing the role of the driver.

Urban design expert Ben Hamilton-Baillie from Bristol pointed to safety, economic, and quality-of-life benefits in better reconciling traffic movements with public spaces in towns and cities. He is a proponent of shared space, part of which involves removing traffic lights, road signs, road markings, and other regulatory devices from our streetscapes, and placing more responsibility with the driver.

Drawing on pilot schemes from across Europe, he revealed how road-related injuries actually fall when drivers are given more freedom to drive at speeds that are appropriate to the environment. He cited the example of Makkinga in Holland, where a total removal of all traffic lights, road signs, and markings led to an improvement in both traffic flow and road safety.

The concept is rooted in a belief in human intelligence. “Presume the driver is an idiot, and he will act like an idiot,” explained Hamilton-Baillie, “Remove a lot of the senseless signs and he will know how to act. Take away speed signs and you will witness how uncomfortable drivers are exceeding the speed which establishes itself as the norm.”

He spoke of county councils in the UK removing centre lines markings from roads, and seeing a reduction in speed and accidents as a result. He would like to see such developments in Ireland. In addition, pilot schemes which involved turning off traffic lights have been made permanent, as congestion was seen to reduce significantly. He cited the transformational change in the behaviour of taxi drivers where shared space is practiced, such as the accident-free Seven Dials in London, in contrast to nearby Shaftesbury Avenue.

Interestingly, car technology could render traffic lights redundant in any case, according to James Remfrey, director of Technology Intelligence at Continental. Telematics technology is enabling the car to communicate with other cars, alleviating the need for such infrastructure.

Human error is at the root of 95 er cent of car accidents, he explained, highlighting the slowness of drivers in reacting to emergency situations. Some 40 per cent of drivers do not brake in a collision, for example. Aging drivers is a growing issue of concern.

The driver assistance systems of Continental and others save 7,000 lives per years by intervening to prevent a driver leaving a lane (typically brought about by fatigue or distraction ), driving into a car in front (Volvo’s collision avoidance system ), or steering out of control (ESP ). Traffic Sign Recognition can read speed signs and warn the driver to reduce speed accordingly, while BlindSpot technology assists drivers when changing lane. Such features, already present in high-end models, will be standard equipment across all cars in the future.

My effort to marry two excellent presentations was difficult. One advocates de-cluttering our streets and empowering drivers to drive properly while the other provides assistance to drive more safely and sometimes rescues drivers from tragedy despite themselves. I resolve the debate by agreeing with Ben for all driving in urban areas. Because of the higher speeds, I agree with James for motorway or duel-carriageway driving.

Unfortunately, it is on single carriageway primary and secondary roads where the vast majority of our road users are killed and maimed. While in-car technology certainly contributes towards reducing the number of accidents and the severity of others on these roads, it cannot prevent carnage occurring in many instances. I'm certainly far from convinced either that drivers can be empowered to be more responsible on such roads.

However, much higher levels of proper driver responsibility, albeit by the current offending minority is very necessary. But in the short-term, I suggest much better and more inventive enforcement has to be the way to go. For instance, where have all those random breath-test check-points gone? They worked!

So in summary, I'd go with totally de-cluttering our urban streets and I'd hope that advanced active safety technology will soon migrate downwards to small cars for higher speed driving. Cost is the main obsticle here.

Michael Moroney, chairman, Irish Motoring Writers Association pointed out the relevance of the forum, in particular given the plethora of road signs and speed limits in Ireland. In a 500m stretch approaching Newlands Cross, for example, 23 official signs were in evidence.

Paddy Murphy, of sponsors Semperit Tyres, welcomed the forum as “an annual event that helps to spread knowledge and promote discussion in relation to motoring and its wider implications for our society. Today’s debate was in keeping with that mission.”

This excellent event was chaired by RTE’s environment correspondent, Paul Cunningham.


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