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 and pedestrian crossings from your village, town or city?

As one of the delegates who attended the annual Automotive Forum, organised by the Irish Motoring Writers Association 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 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 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 Britain 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 per cent of car accidents, he explained, highlighting the slowness of drivers in reacting to emergency situations. Forty 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. Traffic sign recognition can read speed signs and warn the driver to reduce speed accordingly, while blind spot technology assists drivers when changing lanes. Such features, already present in high-end models, will be standard equipment across all cars in the future.

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 am far from convinced either drivers can be empowered to be more responsible on such roads.

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

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