Do traffic lights cause more harm than good?

The Telegraph has recently carried some interesting articles and correspondence about the value or otherwise of traffic lights.

It reports that in the UK there has been a 25% increase in the number of traffic lights since 2000. Some commentators suggest that removing many of our traffic lights would improve road safety by encouraging us to be more wary at the wheel (or handlebars). Although this appears counter-intuitive, the Transport Research Laboratory says ‘It is a myth that signals guarantee safety.’

The idea of reducing road clutter has been extensively tested in Holland, most obviously in the town of Drachten, which removed virtually all its lights at about the same time we started massively increasing ours. The result has been improved traffic flow, fewer accidents and fewer fatalities. Hans Monderman, the man behind the Drachten experiment, compared his philosophy of motoring to an ice rink: ‘Skaters work out things for themselves, and it works wonderfully well. I am not an anarchist, but we only want traffic lights where they are useful and I haven’t found anywhere they are useful yet.’

A study by the British Infrastructure Group of MPs and peers led by the former Cabinet minister Grant Shapps, warned that poorly designed junctions contribute to congestion. It surveyed 85% of local authorities, who are responsible for 93% of the country’s roads, and found that across the UK’s 245,000 miles of roads, there is a ‘controlled junction’ or crossing every 5.7 miles.

The study, backed by the AA, the RAC and senior politicians, called for a ban on the installation of new road controls, and recommended that traffic lights should be switched off and parking restrictions eased, because the ‘anti-car’ attitude of many councils was clogging up the roads. The report recommended that councils should switch off ‘huge numbers’ of traffic lights, take down needless signs and create more open, ‘shared’ road spaces. This would force drivers, cyclists and pedestrians to take more responsibility for their own safety, co-operate with each other and speed up the flow of traffic.

Mr Shapps, the Conservative MP for Welwyn Hatfield, said: ‘Removing many of these controls, particularly traffic lights, would go a long way to making road travel more efficient and better for the economy, and saving individual motorists money.’

The Dutch town of Makkinga removed all signs and other controls with success. In Ashford, Kent, traffic lights were removed in 2008 and the road layout was simplified. Accident rates fell by 41%, with evidence that congestion has eased, despite a rise in the number of road users.

It is estimated that delayed journeys caused by too many traffic controls costs the economy £16 billion a year, the equivalent of £514 for every registered car in the country. Here are some comments in letters to the Editor of The Telegraph:

‘After many years in the heavy commercial vehicle industry, I have been aghast to see the continuous move toward the installation of more and more unnecessary traffic lights, most of which significantly slow down journey times. A 44-ton truck grinding to a stop at a formerly free-flowing roundabout is an insult to the intelligence. The cost, not least to the environment, is appalling.’

‘The Peahen junction in St Albans is classic in this regard. When the lights work, there is chaos on every approach. When the lights are broken everything runs smoothly.’