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 “Progress is exactly that which rules and regulations do not see.” – Ludwig von Mises


Is the Traffic Light a Menace to Society?

Traffic was heavy when the traffic lights went out. With hundreds of cars on Atlantic Avenue, the main thoroughfare in Delray Beach, it should have been a minor disaster, with honking and screaming, fender benders and eventually gridlock.

But it wasn’t. It was, in fact, a stress-free and inspiring experience. I reached the beach house, a four-mile trek, in record time. With a smile on my face?

What happened?

Without being told what to do, drivers were treating the intersections like four-way stops. Instead of relying on a traffic light to direct their stop-and-go decisions, they were using common sense and civility, and it worked. Not just well enough, but better than usual.

Every so often, someone would move out into the center when it wasn’t his turn. But since everyone was paying more attention than usual to the flow of traffic, this was not a problem. No one seemed upset with the rule breakers. We all seemed to have the same thought: “It must be someone scared and confused. No reason to make it worse by honking at him.”

This was not the first experience I’d had like this. Living in South Florida, it happens at least once a year. I’ve also had it a dozen times in Rome and Paris while driving through traffic circles.

I remember reading in a Malcolm Gladwell book about a town in Europe that removed all of its traffic lights and stop signs. The result: significantly fewer accidents than they had before.

In the past 10 or 15 years, there have been dozens of  studies that have come to the same counterintuitive conclusion: When it comes to traffic safety, less can be better than more. And not only because, in the absence of governance, everyone pays closer attention.

One example: In an effort to cut costs, officials in Detroit were considering removing more than 1000 traffic lights in the city. (Operating a single traffic light can cost a city upwards of $8000 a year.) Michael Schrader and Joseph Hummer, civil engineers at Wayne State University, were hired to look into the situation. They did an initial study of a sample of 100 of the lights. And of those 100 lights, they found that 21 could be replaced with a two-way stop and 24 could be replaced with a four-way stop, without any negative impact on traffic flow. Extrapolating those findings to the entire 1000+ lights deemed eligible for removal, they determined that 460 of them could be safely removed.

A side note: Schrader and Hummer pointed out that many of the signals that had not been eligible for removal were lights serving traffic between the city and the suburbs. “In effect,” they wrote, “a poor city is subsidizing the travel of residents of wealthier ones.”

Reid Ewing, who literally wrote the book on this subject (Traffic Calming: State of the Practice), pointed out that though stop signs may help make traffic flow in a more orderly fashion, they do not necessarily make it safer. “They don’t do a lot for speeding,” he said, “because there’s a tendency for drivers to make up for the lost time.”

And I found this on the NYC DOT website: “Studies made in many parts of the country show that there is a high incidence of intentional violations where stop signs are installed as ‘nuisances’ or ‘speed breakers.’ While speed is reduced in the immediate vicinity of the ‘nuisance’ stop signs, speeds are actually higher between intersections than they would have been if those signs had not been installed.”

Instead of stop signs and traffic signals, street safety advocates recommend speed humps or curb extensions – self-enforcing measures that force drivers to slow down.

So if traffic lights and stop signs are of limited use, why is it that they are being installed across the country at an ever-growing rate?

The answer, experts say, is simple: Citizens demand them.

And if the answer is that simple, you might be justified in asking (if you’ve read this far), why I have just written nearly 700 words on the overabundance of traffic lights and stop signs?

I have two answers:

First and most importantly, it’s to illustrate that government regulations, however well-intentioned, tend to become excessive and counterproductive unless there is a constant force to question them. Some are downright damaging, causing unintended harm that exceeds that which they were enacted to reduce.

And second, the cost of unnecessary regulations is much, much larger than most people think. In terms of traffic lights and stop signs in the US, it’s not millions of dollars, but billions. And once we move into other areas, such as public health and defense, these excesses amount to trillions of dollars – enough to feed millions of the world’s poorest people, with hundreds of billions left over for boondoggles. And where there is government, there are always boondoggles.


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civility (noun) 

Civility (suh-VIL-uh-dee) is formal politeness and courtesy. As I used it today: “Instead of relying on a traffic light to direct their stop-and-go decisions, [drivers] were using common sense and civility, and it worked. Not just well enough, but better than usual.”

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* The amber light was introduced in the 1920s.

With only a red and green signal, drivers didn’t have an interval to slow down. On busy and noisy intersections, that caused plenty of accidents. In 1920, the amber/yellow signal was added to warn drivers of the impending stop. Of course, today some drivers consider the amber light a signal to go even faster to try to beat the red.


* You can see the red light faster than you can see the green light.

The traffic light was modeled after signals used on railroad tracks and crossings. There’s little evidence as to why the colors red and green were initially chosen to represent “stop” and “go” – but we now have a scientific rationale for that decision. Because red light has a longer wavelength than green, it can be seen from farther away. The sooner you see the light, the sooner you hit the brakes.


* The traffic light continues to evolve.

Most cities these days use cutting-edge technology and energy-saving LEDs that are controlled by massive central traffic management centers. Future traffic lights will sync with our phones… even talk to us, display news headlines, and communicate with our cars’ navigation systems, telling the car how fast to go to avoid red lights.

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