Friday, May 10, 2013


Comments on the Vanderbilt Reading:

A large portion of Vanderbilt’s piece, “When Dangerous Roads are Safer”, is devoted to the notion of improved safety through, ultimately, changing the surroundings to create a more cautious and hopefully slower driver. He points out that when the Swedes changed the side of the road they were driving on things were statistically safer for the first year, ‘It took a year before the accident rate returned to what it had been the year before the changeover’ (177). He points this out again regarding roundabouts versus intersections that, ‘Drivers (in a roundabout) must adjust their speed, scan for openings, negotiate the merge. This requires more workload, which increases stress, which heightens the feelings of danger’ (179), making drivers more alert, thereby reducing speeds and by extension creating a safer interchange.

This reaches a sort of climax when Vanderbilt begins to mention the work of Mondermann and his objection to signage in favor of, ‘psychological traffic calming’ to reduce vehicle speeds, volumes, directions, etc. through narrowing roadways, eliminating standard signs and the use of trees and vegetation to mention a few examples.  While I am more supportive of his argument than the former I think he and I would agree that he is posing a very simplified version of the issue; often signage needs to be included for a number of reason he opted to not address: liability, cost, enforcement and safety cues to mention a few.

Often, design intent varies significantly from the actual result.  A well-designed road can quickly evolve to become more complicated than its original intent – through growth, development, etc. Signage is often the cheapest way to ameliorate these problems and provide clarity. Signage also plays a helpful role in enforcement – imagine the nightmare of the police having to cite they thought you were going too fast if there was no stated speed sign. Lastly, signage gets everyone on the same page, because contrary to what Mondermann and Hamilton-Baillie state, social norms are not universally understood or followed.

I would argue this last point is the most significant reason for the continued use of signage. For example, there was a time when those on bikes and pedestrians were significantly more defensive (in their relationship to vehicles) then they are now. Bikes and pedestrians beginning to take a more assertive, offensive, role on streets, often leads to misunderstandings and interactions with vehicles that are catastrophic. As I see it, this is often as much a misunderstanding of the ‘social norms’ (to say nothing of the laws) by the bike or pedestrian as it is of the vehicle that leads to the accident.

My actual point is not to take up a position against Mondermann or Hamilton-Baillie, et al. because often signage is poorly conceived, placed, or meant to provide clarity for something that is not designed or installed well. What I would suggest, in quasi-support of their treatise, is that cues are imperative to all, on and around roads, and at their core is the mission of good signage. I would also suggest that a greater effort be put into getting everyone on the same page much earlier in the process so that everyone understands the signs, and what the cues they are sending, actually mean. So yes, this would mean a more difficult drivers exam, and yes, this would mean an exam to register bikes (simply as a way of ensuring that they had read the information) and yes, some sort of public service campaign to get pedestrians up to speed.

And in the end as public education of the cues and social norms increases, maybe we can reduce the need for superfluous signage and ultimately have safer roads.

Mondermann’s ‘squareabout’ at Laweiplien – lean on signage, dense with cues.

[Special thanks to the patient editing done by Sravya] 


  1. I agree with you that Mondermann goes over the top with recommending no signing to improve safety. It is an interesting idea though. Perhaps there need to be stricter standards on what gets signed and what doesn't.

  2. But Vanderbilt brings to mind a very true observation. People don't pay as much attention when they are obeying the posted signage. Light is green - I have the right away - I go through the intersection. I would wager a significant sum that most drivers don't watch for rogue pedestrians when going through a green traffic light. Pedestrians, too. When the white hand comes up, they cross with far less caution than when they cross against the signal. I think we have too much confidence when it's our turn to go, and less signage would make all road users have to interpret (as opposed to expect) how each other is using the road. That little bit of unpredictability would make things safer.

    Don't quote me that it's going to change the world. Safer, yes. And cheaper (less signage). And less clutter. And less micro-managing.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. I disagree. 

      While there is value in dealing with the issue of 'having too much confidence when it's your turn' - I am resistant to the subtly that this program is supporting: using pedestrians as traffic calming. 

      Note that many of the intersections the Vanderbilt addresses in his piece have been retrofitted with signage - this also goes for the 'safe' street precedent studies that were mentioned by the safety groups in their presentations weeks ago - the original efforts failed (in some way for some reason).

      It can defiantly be annoying to have to come to a stop simply because a red piece of metal on a post by the side of the road is telling you to but I don't see that as 'micro-managing' as much as providing clear direction where there was none. Removing confusion rather than adding it.

      That said, it would be interesting to look at intersections in Portland, which currently do not have stop signs in either direction (and haven't had signs for years). This would seem like an applicable study area to see how current users are reacting to less signage direction rather than the standard.


Finally, I do believe there is a correct application for almost everything, even this remove-it-all strategy. The reasoning that keeps me from whole-heartedly endorsing it is that Americans (in cars, trucks, on bikes, or pedestrians) don't have a uniform thought process. You call it too much 'confidence' I tend to think it's too much 'entitlement' - everyone thinks they are right, regardless. 

      So, for the time-being I feel signage is the best overall bet.


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