Can reducing the number of traffic signs reduce the number of accidents?

What would happen if your local government announced that, starting tomorrow, most of your town’s traffic signs– including traffic lights, stop signs, and speed limit markers– would be taken down?

I’ve been thinking about this question a lot after reading about several towns that have recently experimented with just such an idea. In the Dutch town of Drachten, for example, all but three of the fifteen traffic lights were removed over a seven-year period. At the main intersection in town, which handles approximately 22,000 cars per day, traffic lights were removed and a round-about was installed. Since the beginning of the experiment, the accident rate has fallen from about eight per year to less than two.

Hans Monderman, a traffic expert who helped design the Drachten experiment, says the project works, paradoxically, “because it is dangerous, which is exactly what we want.” He says the experiment “shifts the emphasis away from the Government taking the risk, to the driver being responsible for his or her own risk.”

Monderman compared this scheme to the way skaters make their way around an ice rink. “Skaters work out things for themselves and it works wonderfully well. I am not an anarchist, but I don’t like rules which are ineffective…”

Similar plans to reduce or eliminate traffic signals, which is part of a concept Monderman calls “Shared Space,” has been implemented in towns in Sweden, New Zealand, the UK, the US, and Germany.

This counterintuitive idea reminds me of the economist Gordon Tullock’s tongue-in-cheek traffic safety suggestion. He proposed installing large spikes into the steering column of all cars, which would propel forward into the driver’s chest if his car impacted another. Talk about a disincentive for risky driving!

In an article in The Atlantic, former UK resident John Staddon also worries that the surfeit of traffic signs in the United States– pointing out every bend, dip, and turn in the road– actually makes us less safe. He writes:

[T]he American system of traffic control, with its many signs and stops, and with its specific rules tailored to every bend in the road, has had the unintended consequence of causing more accidents than it prevents. Paradoxically, almost every new sign put up in the U.S. probably makes drivers a little safer on the stretch of road it guards. But collectively, the forests of signs along American roadways, and the multitude of rules to look out for, are quite deadly.

Why? Because the signs probably distract drivers more than they provide them with useful information. Staddon points out that “attending to a sign competes with attending to the road. The more you look for signs, for police, and at your speedometer, the less attentive you will be to traffic conditions.”

Most of us have probably felt the same way before. For example, when I see police cars hiding in “speed traps,” I often slam on my brakes, even when I’m not speeding. (Which is rare, I’ll admit.) I also tend to look at my speedometer as much I look at the road to make sure I’m going precisely 7 miles per hour over the speed limit. (Hey, that’s still legal, right?)

If you still don’t believe that traffic can proceed accident-free in the absence of traffic signals, check out the following video taken of the west end of the Champs-Élysées in Paris: