‘Why I believe we should ban traffic lights’

Evil eyes: There are around 3,500 sets of traffic lights in London alone.
by Martin Cassini

A video producer, Martin Cassini set up Equality Streets, which pushes for traffic system reform. He has contributed to several publications, including The Times, The Guardian and The Telegraph.

This year is the 150th anniversary of the world’s first traffic lights, erected to control horse-drawn traffic in London. But this writer argues that they should be replaced by common sense.

It was a day in Cambridge in 2000 at a road junction where normally I would wait for three signal changes to get through. This time it was deserted and as I breezed through without incident or delay I saw that the traffic lights were out of action.

From then on I started thinking: "Are we better off left to our own devices? Is this huge system of traffic control blocking our progress and making us “see red” in more ways than one?"

First, the statistics. The latest annual figures show there were 24,000 deaths or serious injuries on the roads in 2015 in the UK. A traffic control system that presides over those sorts of figures is still getting something profoundly wrong.

As a driver, when you see a green light, are you watching the road? You are probably watching the light.

One estimate puts the annual cost of accidents at between £15 bllion and £32 billion. In my view most accidents are not accidents; they are events contrived by the rules and design of the road.

As a driver, when you see a green light, are you watching the road? You are probably watching the light.

Driving recently, I was about 20 yards away when lights changed to amber and I thought, shall I put my foot down and try to beat the amber. I knew it would be a long wait at this set of lights.

Luckily I did not. As I stopped, between the traffic light poles a pedestrian appeared. If I had put my foot down it would have been a disaster.

Instinctively, we want to be kind to each other, especially on the road. When you first meet a stranger, unless you are a mugger, you want to be nice to that stranger.

We all have relationships with strangers in their thousands on the road but road user relationships are corroded and corrupted by the system of control which makes us almost have a greater respect for a traffic light than for a human life.

The unseen spanner in the works is the idea of main-road priority. It was introduced in about 1929 when the authorities were trying to work out how to regulate the new form of locomotion — the motor car.

Main-road priority licenses main-road traffic to plough on regardless of who was there first, including side-road traffic and people on foot waiting to cross.

Driving along a main road do you even notice that mother with a pram on a traffic island trying to cross the road?

The intolerable conflicts that arise, arise purely and simply from this rule of priority.

So what did they do to solve the problem of priority to enable us to cross the road in relative safety? They put up traffic lights to make us "stop to avoid the inconvenience of slowing down", to quote one writer.

If the lights were absent, we would approach slowly and carefully and see what other people were doing and filter through, but the traffic lights make us speed up to beat them.

My solution is to remove the fatal flaw at the heart of the system — the original sin of priority, because once you have removed priority you have removed the need for traffic lights and the need for speed because we are in no rush anymore.

We are not rushing to beat that light. We are not stressed out waiting in a queue that is caused purely by that red light.

Traffic volume can be a drama but volume plus control equals crisis. If you are leaving say, a pop concert in a car, the volume of traffic we can live with. What gets our goat is if we are sitting at a red light for no reason other than that it is red.

Various organisations have put the cost of lost productivity to the UK economy as a result of congestion at £20 billion so in my opinion traffic system reform is a rich source of painless spending cuts.

This is an extract of a longer piece, reprinted with kind permission. For the full essay please see the link in Become An Expert.

You Decide

  1. Do traffic lights cause more harm than good?

Activities

  1. Design a road network for the centre of a fictional town. What would you need to include, and how would you do so?

Word Watch

24,000 deaths or serious injuries on the roads
There were 1,732 deaths and 22,137 serious injuries. Along with this there were 162,340 people slightly injured. But while this may seem bad, the UK actually fares better than most countries, with 2.9 fatalities per 100,000 every year. In the United States the rate is at 10.6, while the worst offender is Libya, with a rate of 73.4, followed by Thailand and Malawi.
Motor car
The exact date for the invention of the car is debatable, but German Karl Benz is usually credited as the most important innovator, creating his prototype in 1885. For several decades, however, cars were unreliable toys rather than a normal means of transport, and it was not until after the second world war that car ownership became common for a normal family.
Traffic lights
As noted by Andrew McLachlan (The Guardian Notes and Queries) the first traffic signal, invented by J.P. Knight, was installed outside the Houses of Parliament in London in 1868. Operated by gas it later exploded, discouraging further development until the era of the internal combustion engine.

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