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Timothy Bond

Taking the controls out of traffic Add to ...

I think we are being regulated (literally) to death.

Toronto is experiencing a surge in pedestrian traffic deaths. It seems that no one is looking out for the next guy. We have had people hit in crosswalks. Someone walked into the path of a streetcar while talking on a cellphone. People have been mown down by cars running red lights.

I think we all agree, no one's paying enough attention.

News pages have been filled with proposals to solve the problem, ranging from policemen handing out more tickets, to "scramble" intersections, to gizmos that will eject pillows out the front of the car. None of these will work. (Well, maybe pedestrians will be on the lookout for traffic cops.)

In the Netherlands, the late, visionary traffic engineer Hans Monderman took a contrary and brilliant approach to the problem. After a study showed people see only 30 per cent of all traffic signs and signals, he decided the secret was to make driving more dangerous. His feeling was that "unsafe is really the most safe."

In the town of Drachten (population just over 40,000) was a major intersection where pedestrians feared to tread. Traffic was always snarled. Tempers flared. Cyclists were run down. Shops went bankrupt because no one wanted to spend time anywhere near the place.

So, Mr. Monderman removed all traffic controls - signs, lane markers, traffic lights, everything. He made the intersection feel unsafe. Dangerous. Which it actually is.

A motorist arriving at the intersection must use his wits and common sense to find his way. He must make eye contact with other drivers to determine his share of the road. He must watch out for pedestrians - there are no crosswalks. A pedestrian, meanwhile, can only cross safely by making eye contact with drivers. Cyclists find their way through the open spaces without the arrogance of entitlement. In this intersection, no one is entitled.

The result was astonishing. The number of traffic-related injuries dropped to near zero. The use of car turn signals quintupled. And the traffic moved through the town at a far greater rate than before.

Mr. Monderman's favourite way to demonstrate the safety of his intersection was to walk backward into the traffic with his eyes closed. He did it many times and always crossed the busy intersection in complete safety.

Mr. Monderman's principles have been applied in many other towns and cities. West Palm Beach has used them to great effect on their busiest intersection. Bristol is using them. There is a countrywide movement in Germany to apply his principles.

In Mexico, there's a spot where two six-lane highways cross at right angles. Traffic lights were a disaster. They tried a huge traffic circle, which worked a little better. But the cross traffic is now flowing at record high levels because all the traffic controls, even the lane markers, were removed.

At the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, 12 streets meet at the same intersection in a giant traffic circle. But there are no lane markers, no stop signs, no yield signs, no traffic lights. Traffic pours into the circle from all sides. The drivers are totally alert. Cars in the circle move closer to the centre to make way for incoming cars, which has the bonus of shortening the drive to the other side. As they near their exit, they look around the car and find their way to the outer circle to simply pull off onto their street. Everyone watches everyone else. There are no accidents, not even fender benders.

The simple fact of human nature is that the greatest motivation is self-interest.

Let's try it. In downtown Toronto, let's turn Front and Bay into a completely uncontrolled intersection with a piece of sculpture in the centre and see how it goes. Let's take away all the signs and lights and painted lines. Only one sign should be allowed - WARNING: UNCONTROLLED INTERSECTION AHEAD.

That sign always made Hans Monderman laugh and laugh.

Timothy Bond is a television director and screenwriter.

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