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?


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  • rate this

    Comment number 314.

    We have a "staggered" junction nearby that used to run smoothly some years ago even at peak periods. Traffic lights were installed and since then the queues tail back for half a mile or more at peak times and a hundred yards or so at quiet times - unless the lights break down when the queues disapper. The lights also have pedestrian crossing buttons which could be left to operate for safety.

  • rate this

    Comment number 313.

    This idea was proposed by Edward de Bono (the creative thinking guru)some years ago - see his website Another idea of his is short term parking allowed anywhere but drivers have to leave headlights on full.....

  • rate this

    Comment number 312.

    We could all find individual junctions (as the author has done) where turning off the lights might work, but to turn them all off?

    I would love for a major city to try the experiment and turn off all traffic control lights for a week... so long as it isn't my city.

  • rate this

    Comment number 311.

    A good start would be at night to turn selected traffic lights to flashing amber: indicating proceed with caution as you would at any junction.
    Much time, fuel and frustration could thereby be saved against waiting when there is not much traffic about.

  • rate this

    Comment number 310.

    As a regular cyclist, motorcyclist, car driver and pedestrian, I think removing all traffic lights is a bad idea but removing 'main road priority' is even worse. The current system may have inefficiencies but at least everyone knows when they should go and when they should stop.

    Better light timings and switching to give way overnight would improve things a lot.

  • rate this

    Comment number 309.

    Two problems here: firstly we have a piece of infrastructure that allows traffic to cross without the use of lights. These are called 'roundabouts' and having seen how poorly these are used I can't see how we can recommend the removal of traffic lights. Second, it completely ignores the problem that we have too many cars being used to perform inappropriately short journeys in the first place.

  • rate this

    Comment number 308.

    In addition to my previous comment ... Having no traffic lights wont stop the boy racers and ignorant drivers who have never seen an accident before from bullying there way through junctions as they already try to do with traffic lights. (Going in the wrong lane because its empty to speed off at green to cut others up)

  • rate this

    Comment number 307.

    I have lived and worked in places where teh nfrastucture is so poor that traffic lights are often out of order (or often ignored). Traffic chaos, accidents and long delays are the inveitable results. We need traffic lights because one cannot rely on the common sense or politeness of road users to prevail.

  • rate this

    Comment number 306.

    In France over the last 10 years or so , many junctions with lights have been replaced by roundabouts. In the UK it seems to be going the other way. Both can't be right. So it must be related to public sector traffic department pejudices and policy. Noticed how many times the motorways are totally closed now after accidents? They want us out of our cars by making the on-road experience awful.

  • rate this

    Comment number 305.

    The French have a system of "priorite a gauche" where minor lanes meet major roads - and it works. A STOP sign with that message advises that the road ahead is a main artery and that fast through traffic has priority over local traffic. No traffic lights - and accidents are extremely rare.

  • rate this

    Comment number 304.

    If people drove with courtesy then this has some merit, although I don't quite understand how it is supposed to function for pedestrians. A significant proportion of people don't drive with courtesy though. They are so taken with their own self importance and laughable notions of driving superiority that courtesy is only a distant memory for them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 303.

    'We should replace that with common sense, argues traffic campaigner Martin Cassini.'

    Excellent idea if there was more commonsense about. As it is commonsense suggests relying on commonsense is misplaced

    Goodbye Mr Cassini

  • rate this

    Comment number 302.

    What an idiot suggestion Traffic lights are the only way some junctions work safely. We need more and better- traffic sensitive lights with detectors set alongside lengths of road to measure vehicle numbers/speed and intelligently change light phase length. These would be a good replacement for roundabouts which cause immense queues because of an uneven traffic flow. Lincoln bypass would benefit.

  • rate this

    Comment number 301.

    I raised a petition on the Gov website a couple of years back to get traffic lights synchronised.The idea being that when travelling north/south or east/west through a city you start on red but would always hit a green light whilst staying on the same road as long as you were under the speed limit.Reduce jams, greener, no more speeding as anyone going too fast would hit lights one agreed

  • rate this

    Comment number 300.

    What I am 100% sure about is that the vast majority of lights could be switched off after 7pm(?) and other quieter times of the day, as you see in Germany, leaving a flashing amber to indicate that caution should be used. The other sensible suggestion made by a previous poster is to adopt the American system of allowing (in our case) a left hand turn against the lights when safe to do so.

  • rate this

    Comment number 299.

    To all those nay-sayers referring to people who need to cross the road, what about pedestrians who can't walk the 10yds to the crossing? If they can't be bothered to use it, why have it?
    Also, there are enough types of crossings without TL's (Also means lower elec consumption) which are respected by drivers (eg. zebra), so put in more of these. Happy people all round!

  • rate this

    Comment number 298.

    I agree with elements of this article and with some of the comments below but removing all traffic signals would cause chaos on many of our roads as the signals often help to regulate traffic flows. Granted these signals may appear to slow our journeys down but imagine all signals being green heading into a busy city centre at rush hour, I'm sure that the journey times would increase not decrease!

  • rate this

    Comment number 297.

    Traffic light problems occur when they are placed in the wrong locations.
    The diagram has two faults: 1. there are about 6 cars missing 2. does not portray the cars travelling at 40mph.
    The lane change is laughable s there would be 4 cars already in that lane.
    Without light you would never be able to turn right onto a duel carriage way where I live!

  • rate this

    Comment number 296.

    It would be a good idea to get rid of them on the quieter roads but they are essential on dual carriageways and such for right hand turns. There is a set of lights on a dual carriageway by me and it stops the flow of traffic to let people turn right. The queue turning right does build up quite fast as it is a main road they turn on to so they would be there forever without traffic lights.

  • rate this

    Comment number 295.

    Your argument is warped. You approached an amber light, thought about putting your foot down but instead slowed and as it happens a pedestrian appeared. You imply that the lights were at fault but your genius won. Amber means stop if possible, not put your foot down. The lights caused you to stop and made it safe for the pedestrian. Driver behaviour is key


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