Mon Dec 12th, 2005 at 10:26:49 PM EST
The first person to be killed in a car accident was Bridget Driscoll, 1896, in London. Reportedly, when crossing the Crystal Palace she was hit by an automobile driving a little faster than 6 km/hour. The coroner expressed the hope that, "such a thing would never happen again". Of course, one could wonder a little how factual this all is, or whether Bridget Driscoll just happened to be the first to draw attention by her tragic demise. Whatever it may be, Mrs. Driscoll is the first on the list of statistics that has grown lamentably long.
Accidents like the one cited above fed the idea, held during the early twentieth century, that it is dangerous to mix cars with pedestrians and cyclists unchecked. For the effectiveness of traffic and the safety of its occupants, it was believed far better to separate cars from the other traffic fluxes: the segregation of traffic. To this day, we experience the results of this philosophy.
Yet now we live in two worlds. Most of the day, we live in the World of Humans where we engage with each other and behave according to our socially formed guidelines. Yet when we seat ourselves behind the wheel of our cherished gas-guzzler, we enter a different world: the World of Cars, which has created its own guidelines, do's and don'ts. It wouldn't be all that bad, weren't it that the World of Humans and the World of Cars often need to share the same space. Public space. Since there is a limit to the degree cars can be segregated from the World of Humans, full segregation of worlds is never attained. And where both worlds overlap, we find deadly car accidents with the highest frequency.
This is not my own philosophy. It's the one of Hans Monderman, or at least it is how I understood his. Hans Monderman is a Dutch traffic engineer, who recently received national and international attention for his work to create more safe and more efficient roads. His approach is nothing short of counter-intuitive: create safer roads by making roads look more dangerous.
There's a libertarian, perhaps even anarchistic, streak to his approach - although Monderman would probably refuse to label it as such. To him, the World of Cars suffers from a variety of ills. First of all, the World of Cars sends out the wrong signals and ultimately it de-humanises traffic behaviour. Secluded within a car, you don't see people. You see other cars. Cars are dead things, and the guidelines we've been grown up with do not apply to them. Ponder this: How often have you had a near-accident or witnessed anti-social behaviour on the road where you did not see the driver? Or felt like kicking the car that had almost harmed you (or the extension of yourself, your car)? Monderman's conclusion: behaviour in traffic is different than social behaviour.
On another tack, the guidelines for the World of Cars are a construct which did not grow bottom-up within a social context. It was superimposed, top-down, by a government institution and always done so within a legal framework. Roads were designed accordingly. An engineer of the government automatically puts extra road signs and measurements in place to reduce the hypothetical "What if...?" situations, to avoid civil responsibility. The paternal furnishing of the roads results in removing a big chunk of the personal responsibility of the driver.
Monderman argues that public space should not be cut up. In fact, traffic should be just one function of many of common space, not a separate one. But how to achieve this? His answer: by again merging the segregated traffic fluxes. By removing road signs that "enforce" responsibility on the driver. Or, in short: by returning the responsibility of the social guidelines back to the individual driver.
Accidents are inherently linked to driving speed. There is a 1 : 1 relation between the increase of driving speed and the frequency of car-accidents. In turn, the driving speed of a car is related to the level of safety which the driver experiences. This is backed up by a range of statistics: the safer the car gets, the faster it gets driven. In fact, even the addition of the safety belt in cars results in a slight increase of speed. This was observed in countries in Africa before and after the introduction of the safety belt. The rate of accidents increased comparably. This does not apply just for cars: I can remember that Nike Air shoes equipped with extra ankle support resulted in more, not less, sprains. Why? Because the wearers believed it would protect them better, got a sloppier concentration and took higher risks, resulting in more accidents.
But Monderman does not believe in enforced speed reduction. It does not affect the attitude of the driver. Instead, he wants the driver to feel less secure, which results in a decrease of speed and a larger interaction of the driver with his surrounding.
From a very readable piece about Monderman and his ideas:
Suddenly, there it is: the Intersection. It's the confluence of two busy two-lane roads that handle 20,000 cars a day, plus thousands of bicyclists and pedestrians. Several years ago, Monderman ripped out all the traditional instruments used by traffic engineers to influence driver behavior - traffic lights, road markings, and some pedestrian crossings - and in their place created a roundabout, or traffic circle. The circle is remarkable for what it doesn't contain: signs or signals telling drivers how fast to go, who has the right-of-way, or how to behave. There are no lane markers or curbs separating street and sidewalk, so it's unclear exactly where the car zone ends and the pedestrian zone begins. To an approaching driver, the intersection is utterly ambiguous - and that's the point.
These roundabouts are nothing new; Monderman confesses he took the example from another city: Paris. Most people who have driven through Paris have developed something of a trauma for the traffic (I sure have!), but the truth is that there are relatively few deadly accidents on the roundabouts while they also more efficiently take care of the traffic than traffic lights would. The general flux of cars is far higher.
Monderman also favours the "first comes, first leaves" system on four-way crossings, common in the United States, for a same reason: it engages interaction between drivers. He often stresses that his solutions are not the end-all of everything and argues that for every situation a new approach might be the best solution. But the goal always should be: better interaction between road occupants and an abandonment of segregation.
The approach of Monderman, and those who think like him, would not have gained so much traction internationally, if it wasn't so successful. Monderman is now working in a EU group with similar minds, and the group has been implementing several projects in more and more countries. Where his solutions are introduced in the Netherlands the death toll in car accidents has decreased staggeringly. Mind: the total amount of accidents has risen, yet those are the bumps and scratches type of accidents resulting in relatively low-cost damage. For most Parisian habitants, these kind of accidents must sound familiar too; they are the kind which Paris is notorious for.
I still have my own questions about the methods described above. For instance, I haven't seen a good take on how Monderman envisions combining trucks/lorries with biking children, who are less aware of surrounding traffic. Nevertheless, his ideas read like a refreshing alternative to something that is so frustrating on a daily basis. That, and the fact that the yearly death toll in traffic has been a sting and curse in my consciousness from early on.