Wednesday 24 May 2017

The presumption of idiocy on the road

An argument has been made for the removal of all traffic signs and allowing drivers to take responsibility for their road usage, writes Campbell Spray

THERE should have been more of a fight at the road safety seminar organised by the Irish Motoring Writers Association and Semperit Tyres last Monday.

In one corner there was a passionate advocate of a totally minimalistic attitude to road signs in towns and the concept of shared space where everyone from pedestrians to truck drivers takes responsibility for their own road usage.

Across the ring was an articulate proponent of all the safety systems that Continental can build into cars so, that even at speed, there is technology to rescue you.

Regrettably, the gloves never came off. Perhaps because most people in the room had a greater interest in either selling or driving cars than town planning.

Delegates heard 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.

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. Part of his 'shared space' involves removing traffic lights, road signs, road markings and other regulatory devices from our streetscapes. Drawing on pilot schemes from across Europe, he revealed how road-related injuries 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 removal of all traffic lights, road signs and markings led to an improvement in both traffic flow and road safety.

"Presume the driver is an idiot, and he will act like an idiot," said 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 councils in the UK removing centre lines 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.

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 accidents, he explained, highlighting the slowness of drivers in reacting to emergency situations. Some 40 per cent do not brake in a collision, for example. And aging drivers is a growing issue of concern.

The driver assistance systems of Continental and others save 7,000 lives per year by intervening to prevent a driver leaving a lane (typically due to 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.

Michael Moroney, chairman of the 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. The event was chaired by RTE's Environment Correspondent, Paul Cunningham.

Sunday Independent

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