Most traffic lights should be torn up as they make roads less safe, one of Europe's leading road engineers said yesterday.
Hans Monderman, a traffic planner involved in a Brussels-backed project known as Shared Space, said that taking lights away helped motorists, cyclists and pedestrians to co-exist more happily and safely.
People going round a roundabout
Road users take more care in Drachten as signs have been removed
Residents of the northern Dutch town of Drachten have already been used as guinea-pigs in an experiment which has seen nearly all the traffic lights stripped from their streets.
Only three of the 15 sets in the town of 50,000 remain and they will be gone within a couple of years.
The project is the brainchild of Mr Monderman, and the town has seen some remarkable results. There used to be a road death every three years but there have been none since the traffic light removal started seven years ago.
There have been a few small collisions, but these are almost to be encouraged, Mr Monderman explained. "We want small accidents, in order to prevent serious ones in which people get hurt," he said yesterday.
"It works well because it is dangerous, which is exactly what we want. But it shifts the emphasis away from the Government taking the risk, to the driver being responsible for his or her own risk.
"We only want traffic lights where they are useful and I haven't found anywhere where they are useful yet."
Mr Monderman, 61, 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 I don't like rules which are ineffective and street furniture tells people how to behave."
In short, if motorists are made more wary about how they drive, they behave more carefully, he said.
The main junction in Drachten handles about 22,000 cars a day. Where once there were traffic lights, there is a roundabout, an extended cycle path and pedestrian area.
In the days of traffic lights, progress across the junction was slow as cars stopped and started. Now tailbacks are almost unheard of — and almost nobody toots a horn.
However, it is not the cars which seem to be involved in the greatest conflict, it is the cyclists and pedestrians who seem to jostle for space. Driving around Drachten, vehicles approach roundabouts with considerable caution – traffic approaches from the left, but cyclists come from either side.
Cyclists, almost none of whom bother with helmets, signal clearly at junctions making sure motorists are aware of them.
Thus far, Drachten's drivers and pedestrians have voted the experiment a success.
"I am used to it now," said Helena Spaanstra, 24. "You drive more slowly and carefully, but somehow you seem to get around town quicker."
Tony Ooostward, 70, was equally enthusiastic. "Everybody is learning. I am a walker and now you are the boss at the crossroads, everyone waits for you. But at the same time pedestrians wait until there are a number wanting to cross at the same time."
Kanaan Jamal, 39, like many people in Drachten, uses a bike to get around. "It is very smooth — a lot better than other towns," he said. The consensus is that the creation of uncertainty by taking away the lights and even in some places the road markings has worked
"Anybody who is new here doesn't know what to do. They don't know who has priority, the car, bike or pedestrian. It's all confusing, but because of that everybody takes care," Mr Jamal said.