‘Recipe for chaos’ as UK scrubs road markings

Way to go: Traffic in Bangalore, where there were 4.2 million cars in 2011.

Some British councils have begun removing white lines from roads in an attempt to prevent accidents. They believe that people are safer when they take more personal responsibility.

Not long ago drivers in parts of the UK noticed a change on their morning commute. The white lines in the middle of the road had disappeared.

Transport for London (TfL) had removed them from three roads to study the impact on safety. Now, they have decided not to replace them. They are not alone: council bosses in Norfolk have conducted similar experiments on rural roads, and in Wiltshire — which first tried the practice in 1997 — lines have disappeared from about 20 roads.

Tracy Jessop of Norfolk County Council says drivers on the unmarked roads ‘tend to be more attentive, more cautious’. TfL’s research suggests speed fell by up to 13% during their trial. But Nicholas Lyes of the RAC said the change would lead to ‘accidents for motorists who take confidence from clear road markings’.

Similar schemes are common in parts of continental Europe, where cars share road space with pedestrians and cyclists. One pioneering idea was the creation of ‘woonerfs’ — residential streets where cars are restricted to walking pace and traffic lights, lane markings and kerbs have been removed — by Dutch engineer Hans Monderman, beginning in the late 1960s.

Britain has recently witnessed a backlash against traditional road safety controls. A report from a think-tank last month called for the removal of four-fifths of traffic lights, bus lanes and speed bumps. It said the obstacles harm road safety as they ‘subvert our social nature and remove individual responsibility’. And in August, a Department for Transport taskforce began to oversee the removal of ‘pointless road signs’.

The government has also criticised some other safety measures. In 2013, the transport minister, Norman Baker, said train operators should minimise the number of announcements on their networks. And in 2011, the prime minister said an ‘obsession with health and safety’ had ‘eroded people’s willingness to act according to common sense’.

Driven to distraction

Paul Watters of the AA says the idea is wrong: ‘we should be talking up’ the use of road markings. Activities like driving are too dangerous to be left to chance; someone must take control and provide us with clear rules to allow safe travel. Instructions and structure give us confidence that our conduct is appropriate; a world without them would be anarchic and unsafe.

But writer Simon Jenkins says it is overdue. The authorities must accept that we can take control of our own lives. We are at our best when we show initiative, rather than unthinkingly following signs, driving where we have been told to or awaiting another announcement. And we can only develop the ability to make sensible decisions by taking responsibility and making mistakes.

You Decide

  1. Do you prefer following instructions or making your own decisions?
  2. Should all public spaces be open to all forms of traffic?

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?
  2. Make a list of instructions you followed and ways you showed initiative in the last week. Then in pairs, discuss why we sometimes do one, and sometimes the other. Are you better at one than the other?

Some People Say...

“The world does not need rules.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Should I not just do what people tell me?
Following instructions is an essential — if sometimes tedious — part of life. But it is difficult to get anything worthwhile done if you never think for yourself. When you apply for a job, the employer is likely to be looking for someone prepared to do both. So you will need to be able to follow instructions from your superiors, rather than questioning them, and to use your brain when appropriate.
I can’t drive yet — does this affect me before I turn 17?
Anyone can be involved in a car accident. Driving safely is particularly important, and new drivers are much more likely to be involved in accidents than more experienced ones. But other road users need to take care too: as a pedestrian or cyclist, your behaviour has an impact on drivers.

Word Watch

Rural
Norfolk County Council began by testing the idea in villages and are now expanding it into built-up areas.
1997
Wiltshire County Council was the first in the UK to experiment with the idea. They did not repaint some lines when roads with a speed limit below 30 mph were resurfaced between 1997 and 2002.
Think-tank
This was the Institute of Economic Affairs, which describes itself as ‘the UK’s leading free-market think tank’. The report said the extra two minutes added to each car journey by the traffic calming measures were costing the UK economy £16bn per year. It also cited ‘serious environmental costs’ caused by increased emissions as a result of braking and acceleration.
Pointless
Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin said that ‘useless’ signs ‘blight our landscape, waste taxpayers’ cash and can be a dangerous distraction to drivers’. He added: ‘we are restoring common sense to Britain’s roads.’
2011
David Cameron was speaking after widespread rioting in cities across the UK. A central theme of his speech was his call for ‘the restoration of responsibility’.

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