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Old 11-27-2007, 05:11 PM   #1 (permalink)
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Naked Streets and Safety

Very very interesting: http://wheels.blogs.nytimes.com/2007.../index.html?hp

I got a kick out of reading Jill P. Capuzzo’s story on the introduction of roundabouts in New Jersey. Growing up outside of Boston, I was raised on roundabouts and rotaries. There was a roundabout between my house and the high school. There was another one on the way to a local farmer’s market. I never thought twice about them.

We also had rotaries. (I didn’t know there was a difference, either until I read Ms. Capuzzo’s story. Apparently, rotaries are bigger and have multiple lanes.) Anyone heading into Cambridge from Rt. 2 has to cross through a series of two rotaries along Fresh Pond. I remember sitting in the back seat as a boy while my dad cursed drivers who were either too timid to enter the rotaries or merged in front of him without warning. During my college years, I held summer jobs in Cambridge and Boston and drove through those very same rotaries every day to work. I found myself pulling my hair out as well. How hard could the rotaries be? As far as I could tell, there was only one rule: Entering cars yield. I was stymied by my fellow commuters’ confusion.

Until I encountered the four-way stop in Illinois.

Even more basic than rotaries, the four-way stop tried my patience. Again, there’s one simple rule: First car at the intersection wins. Tie goes to the car on the right (OK, two rules). But few drivers seemed to understand. Or maybe they were just polite. Whatever the case, I still think about the wasted time staring at the three blank faces staring back at me from other directions. Don’t get me started on the six-way intersection in Beverly Hills.

But back to traffic circles in Jersey, which seem to be getting the best of the state’s drivers while raising an interesting point:

One problem stems from the fact that the generally unwritten rules governing traffic circles run opposite those governing roundabouts.

With roundabouts, those entering are supposed to yield to those already in the roundabout, who have the right-of-way. For traffic circles, the rules are a little more ambiguous, with the advantage going to what is deemed the dominant roadway.

The New Jersey Driver Manual published by the Department of Transportation does not do much to clear up the confusion. “There are not set rules for driving into, around and out of a traffic circle in New Jersey,” the manual states. “Common sense and precaution must prevail at all times.”

Roundabout sign(Photo by Laura Pedrick for The New York Times)

Common sense… Really? Can behavioral research back that up? Ever since I saw “Lord of the Flies” in English class, I’ve believed that humans need guidance and structure. Otherwise, it’s just a free-for-all, absolute madness and chaos, and Piggy goes down the cliff.

Maybe not. According to this article in the Guardian UK from June 30, 2002, some towns in Holland have been rid of their traffic lights and signs for years:

The unusual traffic arrangements are based on forcing motorists to rely heavily on eye contact with each other, pedestrians, cyclists and bus drivers instead of falling back on road signs and red lights to dictate their driving. When drivers have to keep an eye out for potential obstacles and casualties because there are no lines, traffic lights or lane markings they automatically slow down to below 20 m.p.h. — a speed where a child who is knocked down is five times more likely to live as one who is hit at more than 30 m.p.h.

In Europe, the idea of “naked streets” seems to be catching on. Towns in Denmark, Belgium and Germany have already stripped streets of their traffic lights and signs. And a few towns in Britain have been pondering the concept.

Could naked streets be safer? Perhaps. I’ve just come back from Buenos Aires, where traffic signs are a luxury in the smaller side streets. I was there for three weeks and didn’t see a single accident. But there’s one important factor that will probably prevent the naked street concept from really expanding — it’s not cheap. The European Union spent $1.66 million to make the German town of Bohmte sign and light-free. And it only sees 13,500 cars a day.

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