Viewpoint: Is it time to get rid of traffic lights?

Street scene at night with traffic lights

We rely on traffic lights to tell us when to go. And when to stop. We should replace that with common sense, argues traffic campaigner Martin Cassini.

It was a day in Cambridge in 2000 at a road junction where normally I would wait for three signal changes to get through.

This time it was deserted and as I breezed through without incident or delay I saw that the traffic lights were out of action.

From then on I started thinking: "Are we better off left to our own devices and is this huge system of traffic control blocking our progress and making us 'see red' in more ways than one?"

First, the statistics. The latest annual figures show there were 24,500 deaths or serious injuries on the roads in a year in the UK.

The author

Martin Cassini

Hear more from Martin Cassini on Radio 4's Four Thought on Wednesday, 16 May at 20:45 BST or download the Four Thought podcast

The numbers have been declining steadily but it seems to me that a traffic control system that presides over those sorts of figures is still getting something profoundly wrong.

One estimate puts the annual cost of accidents at between £15bn and £32bn and in my view most accidents are not accidents.

They are events contrived by the rules and design of the road.

As a driver, when you see a green light, are you watching the road? You're probably watching the light.

Driving recently, I was about 20 yards away when lights changed to amber and I thought, shall I put my foot down and try to beat the amber.

I knew it would be a long wait at this set of lights.

Who gives way at junctions?

broken line
  • Give Way sign, triangle marked on road or broken white lines mean motorists approaching a junction must give way to traffic on main road
  • Do not drive into yellow hatchings painted on box junction until exit road is clear
  • But drivers turning right can enter the box and wait for oncoming traffic to clear
  • When turning right at crossroads where oncoming vehicle is also turning right, cross either left-hand-to-left-hand, or right-hand-to-right-hand
  • When turning left, motorists should keep as close to the left as safe
  • And give way to those using bus lane, cycle lane or tramway from either direction

Luckily I did not. As I stopped, between the traffic light poles a pedestrian appeared. If I had put my foot down it would have been a disaster.

People think traffic lights are a guarantee of safety but the latest audit from Westminster City Council, for example, has shown that 44% of personal injury accidents occurred at traffic lights.

I started filming junctions wherever I found the lights were out of action and filmed after the engineers had got the lights working again.

I started a campaign, now called Equality Streets and initially known as Fit Roads, standing for Filter in Turn. The idea behind it was that we can make roads fit for people by letting human nature take its competent and co-operative course.

Instinctively, we want to be kind to each other, especially out on the road. When you first meet a stranger, unless you're a mugger, you want to be nice to that stranger.

We all have relationships with strangers in their thousands or millions on the road but road user relationships are corroded and corrupted by the system of control which makes us almost have a greater respect for a traffic light than for a human life.

The fatal flaw at the heart of the system is priority. Traffic lights are bad enough - they make us stop when we could go, they take our eyes off the road, flouting the most fundamental safety principle but they are only the symptom of a dysfunctional system.

The unseen spanner in the works is the idea of main road priority. It was introduced in about 1929 when the authorities were trying to work out how to regulate the new form of locomotion - the motor car.

Main road priority licenses main road traffic to plough on regardless of who was there first, including side road traffic and people on foot waiting to cross.

If you're driving along a main road do you even notice that mother with a pram on a traffic island trying to cross the road?

Signs or no signs?

  • Netherlands: Town of Makkinga has no traffic signs or demarcations. Town of Drachten has similar set-up
  • UK: Kensington High Street has "naked streets" - street signs and barriers removed to promote safety for pedestrians

You might notice her but you can't really stop and let her go if there's a 10-ton truck on your tail, especially if there's a green light ahead.

The intolerable conflicts that arise, arise purely and simply from this rule of priority.

So what did they do to solve the problem of priority to enable us to cross the road in relative safety? They put up traffic lights, so they make us "stop to avoid the inconvenience of slowing down", to quote traffic writer Kenneth Todd.

If the lights weren't there, naturally we would approach slowly and carefully and see what other people were doing and filter through, but the traffic lights make us speed up to beat them.

But what about the maniacs? If we had no traffic control, what would happen?

You can't even legislate for maniacs, so why hobble the vast majority with "one size fits all" rules devised to catch the hypothetical deviant?

My solution is to remove the fatal flaw at the heart of the system - the original sin of priority, because once you've removed priority you've removed the need for traffic lights and the need for speed because we're in no rush any more.

Motorcyclist Do traffic lights make congestion worse?

We're not rushing to beat that light, we're not stressed out waiting in a queue that's caused purely and simply by that red light.

Traffic volume can be a drama but volume plus control equals crisis. If you're leaving say, a pop concert in a car, the volume of traffic we can live with. What gets our goat is if we're sitting at a red light for no reason other than that it's red.

In Portishead near Bristol where I showed my video, The Case for a Traffic Lights Trial to the council, a trial began on 14 September 2000.

The lights were switched off at a junction where there had been excessive queues and within minutes of the lights being bagged over the queues disappeared.

That trial has gone permanent and the monitoring has shown that journey times fell by over half with no loss of safety.

Various organisations have put the cost of lost productivity to the UK economy as a result of congestion at £20bn so in my opinion traffic system reform is a rich source of painless spending cuts.

This is an edited version of Martin Cassini's Four Thought talk for BBC Radio 4. Hear the full programme on Wednesday, 16 May at 20:45 BST or download the podcast.

Future street graphic

How close are we to a crash-proof car?


More on This Story

In today's Magazine

Related Stories

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites


This entry is now closed for comments

Jump to comments pagination
  • rate this

    Comment number 1034.

    In Milton Keynes we only have a few traffic lights on large major junctions such as the one that takes us to the M1, everywhere else we have roundabouts, it's very civilised, there are few holdups, it's a good way to travel.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1033.

    I agree we need some fundamental changes in our traffic regulations. Many lights need to be removed or better synchronized. I also agree that left filtering is a good idea. However we allow right turns at dual carriageways and other main roads; a real recipe for an accident this must be changed. Motor cycles using the bus lanes and removing road markings on rural roads is also a good idea.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1032.

    The article is written from a motorist's point of view. I rely on traffic lights as a pedestrian and feel safer at the point of crossing the road when it is properly regulated (especially with a child). I do agree though that common sense must be used anyway as the system might fail.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1031.

    I think this proposal that will not easily get support, but in the meantime I would propose a modest change that applies in some countries and seems to me to be a very sensible thing.

    At a junction when the lights are red, vehicles that wish to turn left should be allowed to do so, (giving way to traffic coming from the left). This is simply applying the rules of a plain junction (no lights).

  • rate this

    Comment number 1030.

    I totally agree with Mr Cassini. I relish lack of lights when they are faulty. Especially lights at a roundabout! What a total waste of time and money. Most drivers have a considerable amount of decency & common sense. The maniacs will be maniacs whether there are lights or not. They will use their mobiles whilst driving, not indicate when turning, and jump that red light time and time again.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1029.

    I understand some of the arguments here, but I don't think this argument is fully considered. I know several junctions where the introduction of traffic lights was a god-send, because under previous 'considerate driver' situations, no one ever gave way to someone else. We need to improve how traffic lights work, but this sounds dangerous. And if there is an accident, how do you establish blame?

  • rate this

    Comment number 1028.

    as for roundabouts NO roundabouts should not replace traffic lights, blimey , i hate roundabouts no courtesy now so would be even worse if you stuck only roundabouts in, the reason people dont want traffic lights is because some drivers dont like stopping and like to go at speed all the time, how silly is this thought. more people would be killed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1027.

    On reflection I think Natural Selection has a lot going for it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1026.

    what an absolute idiot, if we did not have traffic lights , blimey it would be disasterous, more than what it is now, how stupid , what planet are these people on, most drivers now have no courtesy, they cant even obey speed signs, what a stupid thing to suggest, i suggests he gets out in a car in some major cities and see if he thinks its still a good idea then.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1025.

    I am sure that one of the reasons we have so many traffic lights is that the civil servants get kickbacks from the lights manufacturers

    The biggest crime is putting them at roundabouts, thus increasing both congestion and pollution

    I say scrap all lights except at really dangerous (blind) junctions. In the meantime, just put them all on flashing yellow - that's all we need

  • rate this

    Comment number 1024.

    I used to walk a mile to and from work in the centre of Reading in the early '90s and could easily outpace the road traffic which was nose to tail at rush hour. Except on the day when all the lights failed, and the traffic flowed freely ... I've been suggesting we do away with traffic lights ever since.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1023.

    I think it would work in Cambridge for example, where people (from experience) are generally more polite, take the long view, have a sense of community; and would generally not work in London for example; where constant barging, speeding, tailgating, cutting-up, undertaking, junction-blocking by (for example) expensively attired middle-aged men in Mercedes can hardly be credited. Context is all.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1022.

    Traffic lights are necessary on busy dual carriagways where you would be driving through fast flowing traffic into a gap in the central reservation to turn right.Yes ?
    On the other hand........dual carriageway junctions are ideal locations where many traffic islands are installed.,

  • rate this

    Comment number 1021.

    I read How We Drive, by Tom Vanderbilt, recently. It was fascinating and very relevant. Unfortunately, while roundabouts are better than traffic lights, we still need to do what they do on the Isle of Wight, which is to add signs to the roundabouts to remind people to give way to traffic approaching from the right. I suggest that when photocards are renewed, a driving test should be mandatory.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1020.

    We need them - there are enough dimwits (drivers, pedestrians and cyclists) taking risks with the lives of other people as it is. If there isn't at least some indication of who should go and who should give way we better improve the A&E services for all those apparently blind/deaf/arrogant/idiotic candidates for the Darwin Awards..

  • rate this

    Comment number 1019.

    Comedian Eddie Izzard singled out traffic lights as one of his pet hates on Room 101, instead highlighting the simplicity, elegance and low cost of the roundabout. I'm inclined to agree. Bournemouth Council recently spent almost a million replacing a mini roundabout with traffic lights and there is now a permanent queue. Traffic lights credit the driver with no intelligence, wasting time and fuel.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1018.

    Excellent Idea! and very glad to hear a really conversation about the subject
    some thoughts on the subject:-
    When you ride a small bike at night the traffic lights don't detect you so you have to go through red lights.
    Why are the lights set to default to red on the major routes, thus slowing the traffic un-necessarly
    Why don't we have count downs on traffic lights, they do in china

  • rate this

    Comment number 1017.

    remove traffic lights, put in roundabouts. traffic lights stop traffic, roundabouts keep it flowing.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1016.

    I think where possible all traffic lights should be replaced with roundabouts, a roundabout can't break down or suffer a power cut etc. Roundabouts act like a compromise between common sense and traffic lights. Sometimes junctions are too complicated and traffic lights are necessary. Turn traffic lights off at night and you'll end up with a set of crossroads, which are perfectly safe.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1015.

    Absolutely, bring on the carnage, it's one way of removing all the excess cars on the roads. It will likely be those that drive with out regard to others that will end up in the sides of each other, it serves two purposes. Can you honestly believe that selfish morons who simply want to get from A to B as fast as possible will slow down at all for junctions if they think they have priority.


Page 1 of 52



BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.