As motoring think-tanks call for traffic lights to be scrapped, and several towns experiment with switching them off entirely, the safety of our road junctions is being called into question.
Traffic lights have long been a pet peeve of motorists, particularly when drivers are kept waiting unnecessarily during quiet hours of the day or night. Research from April 2016 suggests that motorists spend around a fifth of their average daily driving waiting at red lights – that’s more than two days per year altogether.
80% of Traffic Lights Should Be Scrapped
In January 2016, a think-tank said that scrapping 80% of our traffic lights would unclog the roads and wouldn’t put us in any danger. The Institute for Economic Affairs report claimed that the number of lights has increased by 40% in 20 years, and that this is making life miserable for motorists. The report suggested towns and cities should instead have “shared spaces” that have no lights, railings or bollards. The idea has already been tried out in several towns at home and abroad:
This town in Germany scrapped all of its traffic lights in 2008 in a bid to make the streets safer. Warning signs, including those instructing drivers to give way or stop, were also banned. The only rules are that the speed limit is 30mph and drivers must give way to the right to all road users, including cars, bikes and pedestrians.
The experiment was declared a success by the local council, who revealed that after the first month of the scheme that there had been no shunts, bumps or pedestrian injuries. The town has also saved £5,000 per month in replacing and repairing damaged road signs.
In 2009, the traffic lights failed at the Cabstand double junction at Portishead in Somerset. The council left the lights switched off as an experiment and found that journeys fell by over half and safety was not compromised. This led to the traffic lights at that particular junction being scrapped.
Poynton, a small village in Cheshire, adopted a “shared space” design at a busy intersection in 2012. This has meant abandoning traffic lights, railings, bollards and road markings, and encouraging pedestrians to use the roads as much as drivers, cultivating a more courteous and patient environment where all road users are equal. However, a freedom of information request revealed that there were six accidents between March 2012 and March 2014 after the scheme was put in place, and four of these involved pedestrians. Between July 2005 and July 2010 there were nine accidents, only one involving a pedestrian. This means the accident rate increased by 67%, and is now ten times greater for pedestrians than it was before the shared space was introduced.
A Brief History of the Traffic Light
The first traffic light to be installed in the UK was outside the Palace of Westminster on 9th December 1868. It had waving semaphore arms similar to railway signals of the time, and red and green lamps for night time use. It was operated by gas and intended to control the flow of horse and carriages. The signal was manually operated by a policeman, and was successful at controlling traffic - until the light exploded just one month later. The policeman is said to have been injured or killed.
The accident meant further development of the traffic signals was discouraged in London, but the lights continued to be rolled out in the United States. The first modern traffic lights were installed in Cleveland, Ohio in 1914 and had red and green signals, while three-colour signals first appeared in 1918, in New York. They came to London in 1925, still operated manually by policemen, and automatic signals which worked on a timer were installed in Wolverhampton in 1926. 1932 saw the first vehicle-actuated signals in Britain at the junction of Cornhill and Gracechurch Street in London. More traffic lights were introduced across the UK during the 1930s. These days there are over 6,200 sets of traffic lights in London alone, and over 25,000 in the UK.
The Benefits of Life Without Lights
Motorists often find that when traffic lights fail, the traffic flows better and they can get to their destination faster than they would if the lights were working. However, while this may be true for those driving on the main roads, those entering the intersection from a side street may have more difficulty in merging when the traffic lights are not working, as the constant flow of traffic in front of them doesn’t give them a chance to pull out. Pedestrians may also have difficulty in crossing the road without traffic lights to stop the flow of traffic – and even if one car stops and waves them on, a car coming down the other side of the road may not be quite so courteous.
However, it is thought that getting rid of traffic lights could make us better, more civilised drivers. If the removal of traffic lights alleviates any bottlenecks, drivers may feel in less of a rush and less frustrated, so they may in turn be more courteous and drive at slower, safer speeds. It has been reported that when traffic lights are not present at a junction, people are more courteous and patient, treating each other equally and using common sense to avoid crashing. The additional level of awareness required at such a junction means that drivers pay more attention to the road and can avoid any accidents that could occur if someone were to run a red light at a signalled junction. Traffic lights can also pose potential dangers as drivers attempt to go through when the lights are on amber and about to change, or if they are driving too fast and have to brake suddenly when they realise they won’t make it through in time.
Environmental and Economic Effects
The 2016 report by the Institute for Economic Affairs went on to say that if traffic management measures cause a two-minute delay to every car trip, the cost to the economy is around £16 billion per year. There are also environmental concerns to consider – vehicles are more efficient when moving at a steady speed rather than stopping and starting, meaning traffic lights add to fuel consumption, therefore increasing emissions and noise pollution. All of this suggests that removing traffic lights in areas where it is safe to do so, could be beneficial for the local communities.
Roundabouts – A Better Alternative?
An often preferred alternative to traffic lights is the roundabout. Dating back to around 1909 when the fist ‘gyratory traffic flow system’ was built in Letchworth Garden City, roundabouts keep traffic flowing at busy intersections. So appreciated are roundabouts, there is even a UK Roundabout Appreciation Society dedicated to them.
Research in the United States has shown that roundabouts can save motorists up to 40% of fuel as there is less stopping and starting and traffic flows more freely. According to the Pennsylvania Transport Department, installing roundabouts results in a 90% reduction in fatalities, a 76% reduction in injuries and a 35% reduction in crashes. There are also economic factors to consider when comparing roundabouts to traffic lights, as the former are cheaper to maintain.
However, Britain still has its fair share of dangerous roundabouts. Government data has revealed that the most dangerous roundabout is outside the Elephant and Castle station in Southwark, London, as it has seen 169 accidents since 2010. The Bordesley Circus junction in central Birmingham and the Royal Docks Road roundabout in Newham, London, had 105 accidents each in the same time period. Another roundabout of note is the Magic Roundabout in Swindon, which consists of one large roundabout surrounded by five mini satellites. It is considered to be the most confusing roundabout in the country. Overall 14,324 accidents occurred on roundabouts in 2015, however this was a decrease of 885 compared to 2014.
Roundabouts: Not Just For Controlling Traffic
Not just a way of controlling the flow of traffic, roundabouts are home to plants, trees, topiaries, fountains, statues, sculptures and war memorials that serve to decorate our urban landscapes.
One non-motoring related benefit of roundabouts is that they can be a haven for wildlife. In 2015 it was announced that a £15,000 scheme would see wildflowers planted to transform two roundabouts in Swindon. The aim was to create sustainable wildlife habitats that would not only bring urban areas to life, but also provide a safe home for insects and birds away from people and predators.
One roundabout in Otford, Kent, is home to a duck pond and is known as ‘Duckingham Palace’. It was awarded Roundabout of the Year 2013 by the Roundabout Appreciation Society. In 2014 the winner of this accolade was the Stonehills roundabout on the A38 in Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire. This roundabout features huge £70,000 wooden sculptures - one of a Yorkist knight on his horse, and one of a Lancastrian horse without its rider. The roundabout marks the site of the famous Battle of Tewkesbury in 1471 during the War of the Roses when the Yorkists defeated the Lancastrians.
Traffic Light Controlled Roundabouts – A Compromise?
Many roundabouts have been equipped with traffic lights in a bid to make them safer, and this compromise between the two alternatives could be considered either safe or frustrating depending on the roundabout and the driver’s circumstances. Many roundabouts have been made safer by traffic lights, and the lights can help motorists to enter the roundabout when traffic is very heavy. However, drivers may believe that traffic lights are installed unnecessarily on some roundabouts that have been operating for years without them. And at times when traffic levels are low, these signals can be seen as more of a nuisance. Turning off traffic lights at night – or setting them to amber – could not only prevent drivers from facing unnecessary delays on their journey, but could also save millions of pounds.
Roundabouts are continuing to grow in popularity around the world – the US, to whom the roundabout is still a relatively new concept, is home to around 3,000 of them. There are around 10,000 in Britain and 30,000 in France. However, for the time being it looks like we are stuck with traffic lights – and in some areas, this may be for the best. Time will tell if more towns decide to experience life without them, and it may take a complete change of culture on our roads before we do away with them completely.