The basic rule of road safety is to watch the road. What do traffic lights and instructional road signs do? They take our eyes off the road.
As currently misconceived, the traffic control system interferes with our primary safety task of watching the road and acting according to social context. It seeks to turn us from social beings into automatons programmed to obey official regulation. Professor Frank McKenna once told me that “road-users must learn to conform to a system”. Wouldn’t it make more sense to devise a system that conforms to human nature? Accidents are routinely blamed on driver error. But the role of traffic control in contributing to “accidents” has never been studied (who will back a study?).
Most “accidents” are not accidents; they are events contrived by the rules and design of the road.
What do you do if you’re approaching a green light at a legal 30 – or 20 – when a child appears in your path, but an unsighted ten-ton truck is on your tail? It hardly bears thinking about, but it’s that sort of intolerable conflict which is manufactured every day by the anti-social rules of the road. “For threatening my baby, unborn and unnamed, you ain’t worth the blood that runs in your veins!” sings Bob Dylan in Masters of War. The charge could be levelled at policymakers in the traffic arena.
The system imposes unequal rights and responsibilities. It puts us at odds with each other and our surroundings. It makes us fight for gaps and green time. It demands disproportionate attention, elevates obedience above judgement, denies choice, outlaws discretion, prevents infinite filtering opportunities and expressions of fellow feeling …
Accidents statistics are spurious because they are compiled in the context of priority. An infinitely safer basis for road-user interaction is equality.
Traffic lights encourage inappropriate, conflicting speeds, as some drivers rush to beat the green while others slow down anticipating a return to red. With self-control, approach speeds are low. My interest in avoiding collision with you mirrors your interest in avoiding collision with me.
So which is safer – automated control based on priority, or self-control based on equality?