Does Your Neighborhood Really Need Traffic Signs?

21 April 2007 at 3:22 pm 9 comments

| Chihmao Hsieh |

A month ago, I was traveling and spotted on a newsstand the then-current issue of US News & World Report, the one where the cover story addresses what societal lessons the USA could learn from the rest of the world. Being born and raised in the USA for 30 years, I found this to be one of the unusually humble headlines by a US publication, and picked a copy up.

The news article reports on 30 short accounts of societal behaviors or conditions elsewhere, which the US should envy. Major differences in sociocultural norms and regulatory policies are evidenced.

The first such account profiles recent policymaking in Ipswich, England, where that city’s traffic planner has removed all traffic signs (including traffic lights and even curbs!) in an effort to reduce traffic accidents. While there were plenty of critics, the experiment now appears successful. Speeds have dropped by more than half, and accident rates have dropped.

The traffic planner is cited (no pun intended) as saying that the program has worked because “old-fashioned values” were reintroduced, but analysis obviously can go deeper. Maybe the success of such a program relates to risk vs. uncertainty, and/or cultural perceptions thereof. Or maybe the effects of eliminating traffic signs hinge on whether a society perceives formalized policy and relational governance as substitutes or complements. . . .

What about your own city or neighborhood? Would it benefit from the removal of traffic signs?

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9 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Peter Klein  |  21 April 2007 at 11:09 pm

    I read about that too. Interestingly, even under the current system many of the “rules of the road” are enforced as informal social norms rather than formal statutory requirements. Customs governing merging, letting other drivers pull in front of you to make a left turn, and so on are obvious examples. Even speed is largely customary, with states, counties, and cities having their own standards about how much deviation from posted speed limits is permitted.

    The curious thing about such norms is that they don’t fit the Grief-Ellickson model of small, close-knit groups with repeated interaction. Rather, the other drivers with whom we interact are largely strangers. Do we respect informal norms because we believe that in doing so, we contribute to the establishment of general rules that make us individually better off? Perhaps, but presumably each of us has a very small impact, on the margin, on the establishment of such a general rule.

  • 2. Marcin Tustin  |  22 April 2007 at 3:30 pm

    My suspicion is that compliance is enforced by the costs of being unpredictable increasing the chance of being misinterpreted, and so having an accident, and that failure to comply with such rules is indirectly illegal as various offences of careless driving, etc.

    As a result of the first element (and reinforced by the second) I suspect that it is an equilibrium strategy to mainly follow the rules.

  • 3. Marcin Tustin  |  22 April 2007 at 3:30 pm

    (On the basis that everyone else will mainly follow the rules.)

  • 4. Tom S.  |  22 April 2007 at 9:17 pm

    A city in Netherlands has done something similar:,1518,448747,00.html

    But my question is whether other adjustments were made to the roads. For instance in Ipswitch, are roundabouts more common or are there any other engineering techniques used to avoid accidents? I think there is something here in drivers driving more safely, but the Europeans seem to have a better control of traffic engineering than we [Americans] do which was hinted at in the last paragraph.

    To Professor Kleins comment: I think I forgot about the counterclockwise rule for 4-way stops, now it is who stops first gets to go first.

  • 5. srp  |  23 April 2007 at 5:02 pm

    How is it a success if speeds have dropped by half? That suggests that getting rid of the formal cues has reduced the abiltiy to coordinate and increased travel times. I suspect it’s also increased stress hormones in the bloodstream as people approach intersections.

  • 6. Sreedhar  |  26 April 2007 at 12:25 pm

    Let’s consider a case to the contrary: most roads in India have no posted speed limits, no curbs, nothing. Speeds? You might want to call them slows. Yet, fatal accidents are on the rise. It just worsens every day.

    All this ‘success’ in Ipswich may simply have to do with people adjusting to an altered situation – once they get used to it, things may jst go back to where they were before the changes were made.

  • 8. Randy Hines  |  25 July 2009 at 11:38 am

    I can see how removing all traffic signs would reduce accidents and lower speeds. My awareness level would skyrocket if I knew no signs existed and I would definitely slow down. Fear of injury due to an accident is a strong motivating factor.

    In the USA, we even have a warning sign that states “No Traffic Signs”, , we should do studies to see if these roads have less accidents on them.

    I do appreciate seeing this warning sign when driving in the country, , signs like that give me comfort on unfamiliar and unlit roads.

    Then some State have their own set of signs and I wonder if this is confusing to out of State drivers? Here’s one example for a California sign, , had no idea of the meaning until I researched it online but I’m from the East coast and we don’t have those signs here.

    Not sure if the USA is ready to remove all traffic signs but we probably have too many on the road as is.

    Randy Hines

  • 9. Interwest Safety  |  10 May 2010 at 1:29 pm

    Life without traffic signs would be ridiculous – I can’t imagine the mayhem of trying to get around in a busy city with stupid drivers cruising past me at insane speeds. Accidents would definitely go up…

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