How intuitive is our traffic system?

Ratburger, I’m interested in your take on this.  If an individual from the distant past, say the 1600’s, was plunked down in one of our cities, how long would it take he or she to grasp our traffic system just by riding around in the car with one of us?  This is assuming that our driver is obeying all the rules, of course, and not sailing through stop signs like they do out here.

Also, I’m sure there would be variables with each time traveler: is he/she literate, noticing of color, English-speaking ?  Let’s assume that our candidate is all three. However, imagining an illiterate peasant, as many of our ancestors likely were, might be even more to the point.

Along these lines, what are some of our weaker traffic laws that should be abolished?  For me, left turn on green in areas with heavy traffic is both frustrating and foolhardy. There should always be green arrows for  left turns, not go-at-your-own risk green lights or those blinking yellow arrows that have cropped up around here lately.

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42 thoughts on “How intuitive is our traffic system?”

  1. I think it would take them longer to figure out the way a car works than it would to figure out the traffic. Hell Americans today don’t know how to drive so it shouldn’t take much time for our ancestors to figure it out. Two things the Europeans do better than us: beer and driving.

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  2. Well, I got struck thinking about this at a stoplight. You can’t get much more basic than green—everybody goes; red—everybody (or almost everybody) stops.  Clever.  Who came up with this now standard signal?

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  3. They switched from words to colors for traffic signals to accommodate the illiterate. The signs are different shapes for this reason also. You stop at an octagon. You yield at a triangle. There are arrows that show you about merging.

    Jokingly, maybe there needs to be “traffic signals” on web sites for the “illiterate”.  Picture to explain to people what type of “zone” they are in.

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  4. The railroads originated red and green over 150 years ago.   The first signals used for roadways were semaphore style mechanical moving arm signs.   Light signals got started early in the nineteen-teens, and the first use of yellow to indicate the switch from red to green [oops] green to red came in Detroit in 1920.   Plan now for the centennial of the yellow caution light in traffic signals.

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  5. MJBubba:
    The railroads originated red and green over 150 years ago.   The first signals used for roadways were semaphore style mechanical moving arm signs.   Light signals got started early in the nineteen-teens, and the first use of yellow to indicate the switch from red to green came in Detroit in 1920.   Plan now for the centennial of the yellow caution light in traffic signals.

    Bubba, you are a professional in the industry, right? Have you ever set up a traffic signal? If so what goes into the process?

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  6. Speaking of arrows, out here there is a system of complex arrow symbols for the roundabouts that are overwhelming to this driver. Certainly not anything that can be deciphered whipping past or over in one’s car.

    We also have these three-way stop signs that drive me nuts. One person might have a yield if veering in a certain direction, or nothing at all, and drivers coming from two or three other directions might have a stop sign. It’s just inviting an accident. Plus stop signs can be hard to see or placed in an untypical location, so they are too easy to blow through—we could use the consistent reinforcement with white paint on the ground, as they have in California.

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  7. MJBubba:
    The railroads originated red and green over 150 years ago.   The first signals used for roadways were semaphore style mechanical moving arm signs.   Light signals got started early in the nineteen-teens, and the first use of yellow to indicate the switch from red to green came in Detroit in 1920.   Plan now for the centennial of the yellow caution light in traffic signals.

    I knew someone here would know this!

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  8. sawatdeeka:
    Speaking of arrows, out here there is a system of complex arrow symbols for the roundabouts that are overwhelming to this driver. Certainly not anything that can be deciphered whipping past or over in one’s car.

    Americans don’t understand roundabouts. The scariest driving experience I’ve ever had is Boston roundabouts (or rotaries, as they call them). Maybe I should have just put the period after Boston. Actually, they’ve gotten better since I lived there. Someone must have collectively whacked Boston drivers upside the head with a 2×4 since my time there.

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  9. It depends upon the part of the country in which you live. Ironically enough, I drove in two of the most heinously congested cities in America- LA and NYC but people respected the rules and I was never afraid of other drivers. Particularly in NYC, if you cut off a driver or stole a parking space, you could expect some severe (private) retribution so one could say we policed ourselves.

    Here in the highly urban streets <snark> of South Florida where the ratio of Escalades and Navigators is 6-1 over convertibles (go figure!), you need to watch your way around those roundabouts and even 4 way stop sign intersections where people in large cars are too busy texting to watch where they’re going. My husband and I have gotten into two serious car accidents and avoided another half dozen on suburban streets no less.

    It actually makes me miss the subways and Amtrak and walking.

    P.S. Couldn’t agree more with: There should always be green arrows for  left turns, not go-at-your-own risk green lights or those blinking yellow arrows that have cropped up around here lately. That, however, doesn’t even seem to work around here because most drivers will take a lunge on left turns if the light is turning from yellow to red.

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  10. EThompson:

    Robert A. McReynolds:
    Two things the Europeans do better than us: beer and driving.

    I’d agree in Germany but Italy is truly terrifying.

    Europeans, especially the Mediterranean types, at bat-guano-crazy drivers. In Barcelona there is a notice painted in crosswalks at many intersections that translates as (roughly speaking) you’re taking your life into your own hands if you step into the street.

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  11. drlorentz:

    EThompson:

    Robert A. McReynolds:
    Two things the Europeans do better than us: beer and driving.

    I’d agree in Germany but Italy is truly terrifying.

    Europeans, especially the Mediterranean types, at bat-guano-crazy drivers. In Barcelona there is a notice painted in crosswalks at many intersections that translates as (roughly speaking) you’re taking your life into your own hands if you step into the street.

    This saying really confuses a Sock Puppet, DocLor. 🙂

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  12. Some things associated with traffic are examples of spontaneous symmetry breaking.  For example, there’s no fundamental difference why it’s better to drive on the left or right of the road.  Some countries (Britain, Japan, Thailand) drive on the left, while others (the U.S., Germany, China) drive on the right.  Once you make the decision (break the symmetry), however, many things follow from it: how you mark roads, where signs are placed, rules of the road for turns, layout of interchanges, where steering wheels are placed in vehicles, etc., etc.  Just as important, the instincts of drivers and pedestrians adapt based upon the choice.  It doesn’t make any difference until people have to change.  Winston Churchill was almost killed on 1931-12-13 when he stepped into a street in New York and looked the wrong way and was hit by a cab.

    On 1967-09-03, Sweden, which used to drive on the left, changed to driving on the right to become compatible with an increasingly connected European road network of countries which drove on the right.  Here is downtown Stockholm that day.

    Stockholm, Sweden: 1967-09-03—switching from driving on the left to right

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  13. John Walker:
    On 1967-09-03, Sweden, which used to drive on the left, changed to driving on the right to become compatible with an increasingly connected European road network of countries which drove on the right.

    The change resulted in a temporary reduction in traffic accidents because of risk compensation.

    In Sweden, following the change from driving on the left to driving on the right in 1967 there was a drop in crashes and fatalities, which was linked to the increased apparent risk. The number of motor insurance claims went down by 40%, returning to normal over the next six weeks. Fatality levels took two years to return to normal.

    The message is clear: if we want to reduce traffic fatalities we should change the driving side once a year. 😉

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  14. John Walker:
    Winston Churchill was almost killed on 1931-12-13 when he stepped into a street in New York and looked the wrong way and was hit by a cab.

    I had an American friend who traveled to London and foolishly rented a car although she had never driven in a foreign country before. Tragically, she was killed within 48 hrs of her arrival trying to make a right hand turn as we would in the U.S.

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  15. EThompson:

    John Walker:
    Winston Churchill was almost killed on 1931-12-13 when he stepped into a street in New York and looked the wrong way and was hit by a cab.

    I had an American friend who traveled to London and foolishly rented a car although she had never driven in a foreign country before. Tragically, she was killed within 48 hrs of her arrival trying to make a right hand turn as we would in the U.S.

    Whenever I have gone back to the States after driving in Japan, I have one or two brain confusions that could get me into trouble. I like driving during the day which helps. I also say/think “Lefty loosy, and righty tighty.”  This saying is for screw fasteners but it works for left turns are wide and right turns are tight.

    I really enjoyed going to New Zealand for they drive on the same side as Japan. They made for a lot less stress.

    Driving in Japan can be stressful because some roads or narrow and it looks like the car is coming at you but both cars know how to let the other car by at the right moment. On really narrow roads some cars have to back up to let another car pass.

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  16. sawatdeeka:
    Speaking of arrows, out here there is a system of complex arrow symbols for the roundabouts that are overwhelming to this driver. Certainly not anything that can be deciphered whipping past or over in one’s car.

    Modern roundabouts operate much better than the old grand traffic circles, but they take a little attention to what you are doing.   That turns out to be a huge problem because most drivers are too lazy to think about their driving.   We are all used to being able to drive while using about five percent of our brainpower, using the rest of our brainpower to listen to radio, or eat, or put on makeup, or converse, or text, or any number of other distracting tasks.   Some drivers really resent having to pay attention to their driving, which is what makes some complicated junctions such notorious crash locations.   The crashes caused by this phenomenon are usually fender-benders.

    We also have these three-way stop signs that drive me nuts. One person might have a yield if veering in a certain direction, or nothing at all, and drivers coming from two or three other directions might have a stop sign. It’s just inviting an accident. Plus stop signs can be hard to see or placed in an untypical location, so they are too easy to blow through—…

    Yes; these are the sorts of junctions where fatalities occur.

    …we could use the consistent reinforcement with white paint on the ground, as they have in California.

    I really like stop lines.   The problem is that they are expensive to maintain.   They are at a location where they undergo a lot of braking action which wears them away.   Jurisdictions that are broke cannot afford stop lines.

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  17. sawatdeeka:
    If an individual from the distant past, say the 1600’s, was plunked down in one of our cities, how long would it take he or she to grasp our traffic system just by riding around in the car with one of us?

    Your time traveler would be so gobsmacked by a ride in a car, and terrified in city traffic, that it would take quite a bit of car riding before they could calm down and pay attention to the patterns of driving behavior.

    But the rules of the road are so simple and easily understood that nine-year old kids do just fine in a driving simulator, if they are given the chance and a few minutes of coaching.

    The first rollout of the rules of the road happened in New York City in 1903.   It was so successful that they quickly spread.   I will start drafting a post about that; it is a short and interesting story.

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  18. drlorentz:

    sawatdeeka:
    Speaking of arrows, out here there is a system of complex arrow symbols for the roundabouts that are overwhelming to this driver. Certainly not anything that can be deciphered whipping past or over in one’s car.

    Americans don’t understand roundabouts. The scariest driving experience I’ve ever had is Boston roundabouts (or rotaries, as they call them). Maybe I should have just put the period after Boston. Actually, they’ve gotten better since I lived there. Someone must have collectively whacked Boston drivers upside the head with a 2×4 since my time there.

    It is my professional opinion that Boston traffic is so bad because Bostonians want it like that.   They have the worst traffic in America as a matter of civic pride.

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  19. sawatdeeka:
    Along these lines, what are some of our weaker traffic laws that should be abolished?  For me, left turn on green in areas with heavy traffic is both frustrating and foolhardy. There should always be green arrows for  left turns, not go-at-your-own risk green lights or those blinking yellow arrows that have cropped up around here lately.

    If all traffic signals limited left turns to green arrow phases only, then the average wait time to make left turns would grow longer, with more time spent idling, more consumption of fuel, more air emissions, and higher blood pressure.

    The judgement of whether oncoming traffic provides a gap that is safe for making your turn is usually not difficult.   The problem is if you feel pressured to make the turn in a gap that does not really meet your comfort level.   So, wait until you are comfortable making the turn.   Don’t worry that the guy in the car behind you is mad at you; you are keeping yourself and him safe.

    The flashing yellow arrow approach is a relatively recent innovation that was experimental twenty years ago and was added to the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices in the 2009 edition.   It is still being adopted around the country.   It allows greater efficiency of traffic signal phasing by allowing left turns in additional phases where the turning motorist must yield to oncoming traffic, and, it seems that people understand it intuitively.

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  20. On roundabouts – I thought I was relatively competent at using them until a recent trip to Sidney, British Columbia.  The Victoria airport is located in Sidney, as is the primary ferry terminal between Vancouver and Victoria Island.  On this trip I was actually going to be staying and working with a client in Sidney.  In the picture below you can see 3 prominent roundabouts that you have to navigate – at about 50 mph, picking up on the direction signs at the same time.  I was trying to get onto Lochside Dr to go to my hotel.  I saw Lochside Dr mentioned on one of the signs right as I was taking the exit out of the first one below to put me on the freeway into Victoria.  So I had to drive down the road about 5 miles before I could get turned around (and still took another wrong road on the return).  I was working with a team of 6 other individuals from all over the US and Canada.  Every single one of got fouled up on this the same way I did.

     

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  21. And please don’t get me started on freeway on ramp signal lights.  Most idiotic concept in the history of motorized traffic.  Hey!  The freeway is traveling at 60 mph – let’s bring all of the cars attempting to get on to a complete halt about 100 yds from where they need to merge then let them try to get up to speed!  That’ll smooth out traffic!  You can watch certain freeways in the Portland area and know exactly when they turn these things on – Traffic drops from normal speeds to stop and go within 2 minutes max.

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  22. Great Adventure:
    In the picture below you can see 3 prominent roundabouts that you have to navigate – at about 50 mph, picking up on the direction signs at the same time.

    Hey, they could replace it with a Magic Roundabout!

    Magic Roundabout, Swindon, England

    Note that traffic on the inner circle travels in the opposite direction to that on the outer loop.

    The Wikipedia article notes that “the roundabout provides a better throughput of traffic than other designs and has an excellent safety record, since traffic moves too slowly to do serious damage in the event of a collision.”

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