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A Day Without Traffic Lights

 

I drove up with my family to Saratoga Springs this weekend for the few hours of the Dance Flurry that was allowed to go on in the midst of the great windblown power outage.

As we pulled off the Northway onto Route 9, the first sign we got of the absence of electricity was a dead traffic light. As an SUV blew past us through the intersection at highway speed, I winced. Clearly we were entering a great no man’s land of roadways without the protective control of traffic-signal devices.

But as the road narrowed from that one wide highway-like point, every other driver I saw was doing what we were doing—driving much more slowly, paying attention, stopping to let people turn onto the road from the side streets, stopping to allow pedestrians to cross. I have never seen Americans so consistently get concepts like alternative merge and four-way stop correct before.

Now granted, with practically every business along the strip closed for lack of power, the traffic was lighter than usual. Few people were late for work at 11 AM on a Saturday. And there is that documented effect where people suddenly get nicer and more altruistic for a while after some kind of disaster.

But as we rolled smoothly down 9, our occasional pauses for civility made up for by not having to wait through red lights with no one coming, I was reminded that there are a number of traffic engineers out there who would say there was something else going on here.

These traffic engineers think that signals and signs usually indicate a badly designed road. Wide, straight roads with helpful directive signs and speed limits all give drivers the idea that they are paramount, they have the right of way, and as long as they follow the rules to the letter, someone else has taken care of the thinking about safety. “A wide road with a lot of signs is telling a story,” Dutch traffic engineer Hans Monderman told Wired in its December 2004 article “Roads Gone Wild.” “It’s saying, go ahead, don’t worry, go as fast as you want, there’s no need to pay attention to your surroundings. And that’s a very dangerous message.”

The movement to actually design roads and intersections to engender better driver behavior started, not surprisingly, in Europe. Roundabouts in place of traffic lights are a frequent ingredient. So are such counterintuitive moves as removing the center lane from secondary roads. Study after study shows that approaches like these dramatically reduce the number of accidents.

New York’s Department of Transportation has become one of many states to start to follow Europe’s lead, encouraging roundabouts instead of traffic lights around the state. Several are being built in Malta, and others are proposed around the region.

People are always a little hesitant about roundabouts in this country, often because of their experiences with traffic circles, which are an all together different beast. Roundabouts are much smaller. They tend not to be multi-laned or rife with confusing signage. They do have crosswalks. People go slowly but steadily through them, figuring out the rhythm of rights of way much like those driving in Saratoga Springs did on Saturday.

As a frequent pedestrian, I say the more the better. I’ll sacrifice my supposedly certain green light happily. See, every region has its own brand of bad drivers. I have quite enjoyed the not-so-insane highway speeds and lower frequency of honking in the Capital Region as compared to my previous homes of New Jersey and New York City.

But I have not yet managed to calibrate my brain to the extent to which Capital Region drivers seem to think that having seen the light be green from two blocks away is sufficient reason to drive through it.

Now, I am no angel. I have sometimes misjudged and tried to slip through a yellow light that turns red above me. It happens to the most sanctimonious of us. And so I try to be forgiving. Morning after morning I stand at corners and think, “OK, the light just turned red, so that guy’s going to try to slip through and possibly the woman behind him too if she’s late to work.”

And morning after morning, two or three or four cars after that woman will sail through the intersection as well.

I like to think of myself as adaptable, but I can’t get this one through my skull. I’ve thought of putting out a call to clever entrepreneurs to invent a slingshot that can successfully launch and stick something to the side of a moving vehicle that reads “Heard of a red light, asshole?”

When the planner in my head is allowed to speak amid the snarkiness, however, she says it’s probably not that these drivers are being pedestrian-hating assholes (OK, not only that). It’s also that they are following the clues of the roads and operating as humans are wont to operate when they’ve been told all they have to worry about is following the rules (i.e. not get caught breaking the rules).

Those rules aren’t working. Red-light- running accidents are among the most likely to cause injury or be fatal. And it’s generally the young cities, like Phoenix, Ariz., where all the annoying aggravations of old, narrow, twisty streets and confusing intersections have been avoided that have the highest number of red-light- running deaths.

In a seemingly parallel universe, Monderman, the Dutch engineer, has a party trick: He walks backward without looking into the middle of a busy downtown intersection he designed, to show how everyone is paying enough attention to easily avoid him.

So perhaps we should be thankful for some of our antiquated infrastructure, and the occasional power outage. Certainly Saratoga’s intersections would need a redesign to actually function without traffic lights on a regular basis. But it seems that when put to the test, the region’s drivers are no different from drivers anywhere: They have what it would take to handle a safer road system that expected more of them. Too bad in the meantime I’ll still need my slingshot.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

maxel-lute@metroland.net

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