October 16, 2003

The Land That Stop Signs Forgot

On Sunday I drove to Truro looking for a DIY store (DIY = Do It Yourself, the English equivalent of Home Depot). When I got there I realized something strange had happened – I’d gone over 25 miles and hadn’t stopped once.

There were exactly three stop lights on the way there, and I had just happened to hit the timing on those just right. But what was really amazing was that there were no stop signs, even though I had gone through dozens of interections.

How do they do it? Round-abouts, and yield signs.

I’ve decided that the English have traffic control all over the States. Let’s start with yield signs. At T-intersections the dominant control is a yield sign, or more often, just a white dashed line across the junction. There’s two things nice about using yield signs for intersection control. One, in cases where there’s little traffic, you don’t have to stop if you don’t need to. And two, you don’t have to worry about some cop hanging out waiting to see if you’re going to roll through the stop sign so they can give you a ticket (this happens in the States all the time).

Round-abouts are a simple, and completely mechanical (as opposed to electrical), way of allowing two or more roads to intersect. The simple rule is that those in the round-about have the right of way. This means that if you come up to a round-about and can see there’s no traffic on your right you can enter and keep on going, no stopping required. In the States we’ve decided that the only way to control two or more roads is with traffic lights. Not only is this much more costly (I think I’ve read that a simple two signal stop lighted intersection can cost upwards of $150,000), but it’s particularly stupid at intersections where the traffic is intermittent, and where the roads aren’t at right angles the number of signals required can be staggering.

What strikes me most about the differences between the way that the English and the Americans handle traffic control is that the Americans begin by assuming that everyone has to be told exactly what to do, and the English begin by assuming that drivers can be trusted to do the right thing.

I don’t know about you, but I know which one I prefer.

Posted by: Frank @ 11:10 pm — Filed under:

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