Giving Drivers the Benefit of the Doubt
On Handford Road in Ipswich, England, there are no stop signs, no posted speed limits, no lane lines, and hardly any traffic lights. Yet drivers politely edge aside to make room for other drivers, they slow down, and they yield to bikers and pedestrians.
Ipswich is the latest European city to test a novel theory: that traffic signs can actually cause accidents by giving drivers a false sense of security. If you take them away, the reasoning goes, people act more responsibly. "If you detach drivers from the world around them, they behave like zombies," says Hans Monderman, a traffic planner who began tearing down signs in Holland 25 years ago after failing to calm traffic with old standbys like stoplights and speed bumps. Instead, he turned busy intersections in a handful of Dutch towns into wide-open squares with no curbs or traffic signs. Pedestrians, cyclists, and cars were left to fend for themselves.
Critics predicted chaos. But the results were surprising. Speeds dropped by more than half, and accident rates dropped as well. The key, Monderman believes, was reintroducing old-fashioned values. With no instructions to rely on, uncertain drivers made eye contact with one another and with pedestrians.
Today, Monderman's "Shared Space" program has been implemented in more than a dozen Dutch towns and has racked up converts and government funding across Europe.
No lines. Wide sidewalks, nearly invisible curbs, and no lane lines increase the number of things drivers on Handford Road must be alert to and give pedestrians a greater share of the road. The color of the road is also different in the shared-space area-a subtle clue that the rules have changed.
The strategy isn't a cure-all, as even Shared Space fans will admit. Advocates for the blind say the absence of signals endangers the visually impaired. As for importing it to the United States, the broad, straight streets in American suburbs are a lost cause. "If you design a street like a gun barrel, drivers will drive like bullets," says Orlando traffic engineer Ian Lockwood.
Ipswich's experiment is barely a year old, so the town doesn't yet have hard data on Handford Road. But based on anecdotes, local official Anita Seymour is optimistic. "My husband drives it every day, and he says it's a lot smoother," she says. "I'd soon have it in my ear if it was worse."
This story appears in the March 26, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.