What the Roads Can Teach Us

March 3, 2008

I’ve often looked to the roads, traffic, and vehicle-pedestrian interaction as a guide to human to behavior. It is a situation where the risk is very high and communication is highly constrained, so behavior strategies are more readily apparent.

Most of us know the roads as strongly structured environments with mostly clear rules regulating behavior, with fairly stiff penalties placed on violators. The theory being that the restricted communication and great complexity of navigating the roads and streets should be offset by the strict direction of behavior and heavy punishment to deter deviation.

In practice, those who cheat will win. Most people are risk-averse enough to allow the few bold and brash to take advantage of that for consistent gain. Alas, this leads to situations where this opportunistic behavior leads to disaster.

But this isn’t the only problem. In recent years, more and more studies have come out showing that at least some of the problems on the roads stem from overconfidence which stems from the various risk-reducing tools we use. Seat belts tend to promote risky driving, although they certainly reduce fatilities by a huge percentage. A recent experiment by a professor at the University of Bath had him biking and measuring the behavior of cars that drove past. When not wearing a helmet he was given a much wider berth than when doing so. Even more space was granted when he donned a woman’s wig. This seems to indicate that the safety granted by the helmet encouraged drivers to take more risks in regards to the cyclist. Once again, bicycle helmets have an immensly beneficial effect in reducing fatalities to mere injuries, so this study should most certainly not be construed as a reason not to don one.

Taking this type of data into account, what can be done to improve the safety of everyone involved?

An idea of growing popularity is that of a Shared Space, pioneered by the Dutch traffic engineer Hans Monderman. This is a model where nearly all traffic markings are removed from an area. This includes signs, traffic lights, and even the clear distinction between road and sidewalk. Intersection are converted into roundabouts.

The results from the several implementations of this model are overwhelmingly positive. This removal of strict direction forces all those involved, pedestrians and drivers alike, to pay much more attention to their environment. It demands the interaction via eye-contact and implicit behavior adjustment of all participants. The result is the smooth operation of traffic, where average speeds drops, but total trip times shorten, as well as huge improvement in safety — fatality and injury rates plummet. After the initial period of habituation, no extreme vigilance from pedestrians or motorists is required as the more cautious behavior is internalized.

I contend that what can work in the street can also work in other areas of life where many demand regulation and strict control for the safety of all. No external authority or risk-reducing device can substitue for personal vigilance, skepticism, and common sense. And in many cases, as the above examples illustrate, relying on our own individual virtues can be much superior.

What the Roads Can Teach Us - March 3, 2008 - Michael Katsevman