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Making Dangerous Roads Safer

Hans Monderman is a 60-year-old Dutch road traffic engineer who takes a imaginative approach to road design. According to Monderman, every road tells a story. For example, he interprets a wide road with multi-lane markings, raised sidewalks, marked pedestrian crosswalks, bicycle lanes and other traffic control signage as inviting all users to focus solely on their own need to use the road, to pay minimal attention to other users, and to place unquestioning confidence in the signs and directions. In other words, this road says, “drive habitually, without thinking, as fast as allowable, and pay minimal attention to other road users.” 

Take away the lane markings, integrate the sidewalks with the roadbed, and remove the bicycle lane markings, and all the traffic control signs, and the story changes quite dramatically. This road says that users must look out for themselves, an exercise which inevitably involves watching out for other users and then working cooperatively with them (even a mere glance can accomplish this) to negotiate how the road can be shared safely. If the road is wide and empty, some will be tempted to speed. For most, however, the obvious need for extra alertness may naturally slow them down.
 
Monderman goes so far as to consider most road signs dangerous. "The trouble with traffic engineers is that when there’s a problem with a road, they always try to add something," Monderman says. "To my mind, it’s much better to remove things." According to this theory, road signs are an admission of failure, a sign—literally —that a road designer somewhere hasn’t done the job properly.
 
What Monderman means by doing the job with road design alone is illustrated by his re-design of a two-lane, main intersection in Drachten, a 17th-century Dutch village that has grown into a bustling town of more than 40,000. Several years ago, Monderman replaced the right-angled intersection with a throughput of 20,000 cars a day, plus thousands of bicyclists and pedestrians with a traffic circle. The circle has no signs telling drivers how fast to go, and no signs designating the right-of-way or how to behave. Where the car zone ends and the pedestrian zone begins are unclear because there are no lane markers or curbs separating the street from the sidewalk. The circular intersection is utterly ambiguous to an approaching driver — which was precisely the effect that Monderman wanted it to achieve with his design.
 
Tom McNichol, a writer for Wired Magazine, described the functioning of the Drachten circle traffic as follows: “Somehow it all works. The drivers slow to gauge the intentions of crossing bicyclists and walkers. Negotiations over right-of-way are made through fleeting eye contact. Remarkably, traffic moves smoothly around the circle with hardly a brake screeching, horn honking, or obscene gesture.
 
Monderman’s theories have been applied with such good results—slower traffic, fewer accidents, and shorter trip times—that he may well have started a world-wide revolution in road traffic engineering in Austria, Denmark, France, Germany, Spain, Sweden, the UK, and the US.
 

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