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 354.

    Rather get rid of the thousands of superfluous road signs many of which are a distraction rather than a help.

    Then the people who make and install/maintain them can turn their hands to food production or manufacturing something more useful that we could perhaps export.

    Whilst they're at it get rid of 50% of the white lines, hatched areas etc.

  • rate this

    Comment number 353.

    Spend a day driving in my town and you will see what a bad idea this is, most people haven't even grapsed the concept of giving way on a roundabout or looking right when turning onto a road. I don't know whether to laugh or shudder at the thought of the carnage.

  • rate this

    Comment number 352.

    Some lights are needed, but, at 5am on my way to work on an empty road? No way. A very large number of lights could be switched off or set to amber at night.
    Even at some busier times quite often the biggest effect of lights is to collect vehicles into mini bottlenecks where otherwise they would have remained spaced out and moveing freely.

  • rate this

    Comment number 351.

    334.L Jenks - "Sort the never ending roadworks out and the traffic will take care of itself."

    Presumably by falling into pot holes, with the obstacles then slowing other drivers down?

    And what about the fixing of under ground services (when the electric, gas, telephone & water companies can be bothered to fix anything) or should they just be left to rot & the services withdrawn completely?

  • rate this

    Comment number 350.

    I am strongly in favour of removing traffic lights, particularly on roundabouts.
    Many times in this area the lights are not working and traffic flows much better.
    This could be introduced slowly with flashing ambers to get motorists used to observing the priorities of the roundabout etc.

  • rate this

    Comment number 349.

    I recently spent about 10 minutes trying to right onto a busy road. The flow of traffic was incessant and I had absolutely no opportunity to pull out. It wasn't long before the traffic behind started beeping me and I felt forced to simply pull out in front of the oncoming cars - as safely as I could. A traffic light would have let me through SAFELY after one phase. Removing them is a stupid idea.

  • rate this

    Comment number 348.

    Stuff traffic lights, let's deal with mini-roundabouts first! Horrendous things. We've got three in the village here, one of which works like a T-junction with paint on it, with the other two being little more than confusing exercises in courtessy (no-one really knows who's got priority, so it's "all stop, all wait, all go, all feel stupid" half the time... very slow, somewhat dangerous).

  • rate this

    Comment number 347.

    Local Government control systems were always doomed to fail

    Government people only know how to make things worse

    More regulations
    +More rules
    +More complications

    =more dead people

    Drivers hardly know which way to look

    There are so many distractions and hazards built by councils nowadays road safety has been fatally compromised

    Anything which takes your eyes off the road is bad for safety

  • rate this

    Comment number 346.

    I'm sure road planners would say traffic lights are handy to deal with technical issues, such as to regulate the flow of traffic and reduce congestion. However, I think their main significance is to remind drivers that there are other people on the road beside them. Alas,a driving licence often confers arrogance and insensitivity on the owner.

  • rate this

    Comment number 345.

    I think there probably are some places where traffic lights are essential. I'm trying to imagine the chaos if the pedestrian crossings near Victoria Station, in London were replaced with zebras.

    The motor vehicles would be stuck for a couple of hours, morning and night watching a seemingly endless river of pedestrians

  • rate this

    Comment number 344.

    My town is plauged by traffic lights. In one 2 mile stretch of road away from the city centre there are 11 sets of traffic lights - one set for about every 320 yds. Each set of traffic lights should be subject to a controlled experiment where they are swithched off for a priod of time and traffic flows and accident rates monitored. The resutls I expect would show how pointless many of them are.

  • rate this

    Comment number 343.

    In Glasgow City Centre at night time and at weekends cars run between lights then wait for 2 minutes to move the next 300 yards. At 5 pm Mon to Fri I watch workers in 4 square miles trying to move to the 400 square miles where they live stopped by traffic lights, anger rises by the minute because people cannot understand why they are waiting 20 mins to get to the larger empty spaces they live in

  • rate this

    Comment number 342.

    Fantastic idea - my personal bugbear is roundabouts with trafiic lights on them - how pointless and annoying are they?

  • rate this

    Comment number 341.

    I can understand traffic lights at certain junctions where there is a constant flow of traffic but alot of the time other traffic lights aren't needed.

    A set near me always cause chaos at rush hour but a few years ago they were turned off for a few days due to some fault and the traffic flowed far better than normal. Shame the Council wombles didn't realise this really.

  • rate this

    Comment number 340.

    The Issue here is not Traffic lights Per-Se but the way they have been used to hinder the progress of the motorist.Ask any taxi driver in London.
    Traffic lights change even if there is no traffic coming from the other in point outside Farnborough Airport, where traffic light automatically changes to red as you approach.

  • rate this

    Comment number 339.

    Quite often on a major road, the lights being out can appear fine. People are courteous (read: confused), giving way and allowing everyone to get on. But sooner or later, you reach a point where it gets snarled up and patience runs thin, proving lights are needed. At night, flashing amber works in Europe, but they also use more sensors and less fixed phases, eliminating the chance of 4am hold-ups.

  • rate this

    Comment number 338.

    In theory, maybe its a good idea. But, in practive, a very bad idea!

    Many accidents are caused by bad judgement.

    Allowing drivers to make decisions as to whether or not to proceed at a junction, will only result in more accidents and deaths.

  • rate this

    Comment number 337.

    I remember the power cuts in the 1970,s . One major road junction in Stretford ( Greater Manchester ) was without lights from about 4.0 pm to 6.30 pm . I know the time exactly because I was stuck at the junction for that time . Moscow seems to do o.k. with their totally inadequate police controlled traffic lights

  • rate this

    Comment number 336.

    Have I fallen through a time-hole and regained 45 days?

    I could have sworn that today was May 16th, nor April 1st....

    (If I have gone back in time, I'll get to have two birthdays this year!!!)

  • rate this

    Comment number 335.

    I saw a great improivement to standard traffic lights recently in Havana. The time a light will stay red or green is displayed clearly below the light and counts down to zero. No tension, no light-jumping, no wondering when is this light going to change?. Great idea


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