December 23, 2004


Taking liberties (Mark Steyn, 1/01/05, The Spectator)
Wired magazine ran an interesting featurette last month about a fellow called Hans Monderman, who’s been a highway engineer in northern Holland for the last three decades. A year or two back, he had an epiphany. As Wired’s Tom McNichol puts it, ‘Build roads that seem dangerous, and they’ll be safer.’

In other words, all the junk on the streets — signs for everything every five yards, yellow lines, pedestrian crossings, stop lights, crash barriers, bike lanes — by giving the illusion of security actually makes driving more dangerous. The town of Christianfield in Denmark embraced the Monderman philosophy, removed all the traffic signs and signals from its most dangerous intersection, and thereby cut the number of serious accidents down to zero. These days, when you tootle towards the junction, there are no instructions from the transport department to tell you what to do; you have to figure it out for yourself, so you approach it cautiously and with an eye on what the other chaps in the vicinity are up to.

I’m no civil engineer, but I am a small-government guy and when I’m asked ‘How small?’ I usually reply that I like to find a road when I get down to the end of my driveway in the morning. My assistant’s husband works for the town road crew and they do an excellent job. But, alas, on the state highways New Hampshire is going in the opposite direction to Mr Monderman. On formerly scenic Interstate 89, the discreet mile markers have been augmented by eye-level markers every fifth of a mile reminding you what road you’re on and that it’s been 0.2 miles since the last reminder. Until this summer, if you were on a bendy road following a river, you’d take the curves carefully lest you plunged over the edge and died in a gasoline fireball at the foot of the ravine. That happened to some poor fellow every 93 years or so, so now they’ve put up metal barriers along the picture-postcard river roads punctuated every couple of hundred yards by ugly-ass shock-absorbers that look like trash cans. So now you don’t have to worry about plunging into the river because the barrier will bounce you back into the road to be sliced in two by the logging truck. The uglification of New Hampshire’s highways is a good example of how, even in a small-government state, the preferred solution to any problem real or imaginary is more government.

Mr Monderman’s thesis feels right to me — that by creating the illusion of security you relieve the citizen of the need to make his own judgments. That’s really the story of September 11.

No one in their right mind actually believes that Mr. Steyn has the bevy of assistants he mentions from time to time--though if one of them were to quit the Wife thinks I need a job--but he gets bonus points for best use of that Wired article from the other day. Posted by Orrin Judd at December 23, 2004 2:36 PM

Most annoying sign: "Slow Down, My Mommy Works Here," written all childlike with a stick figure drawing. I first recall seeing those in Maine and NH I believe.

Posted by: David Hill, The Bronx at December 23, 2004 12:10 PM

I first saw the "mommy" road construction signs a couple of years ago in Pennsylvania. But personally, I'd be happy if some day California actually put real mile marker signposts on Interstate 10 and 40 between the Colorado River and Indio or Barstow, since other than the barren mountains there's nothing else to look at on those drives (and the mountains aren't even there on a good dust storm day).

As for the road sign experiment in Europe, I'm surprised John Edwards hasn't already gone running off to the Low Countries to file lawsuits on behalf of the first drivers to have an accident once the signs were removed.

Posted by: John at December 23, 2004 4:01 PM

There are no contingent fees in European litigation.

Posted by: Bart at December 25, 2004 12:41 AM