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Would Fewer Road Signs Make Driving Safer?

If you were to climb into a car right now and drive for a mile, how many road signs do you think you would pass?
The answer is almost certainly “a lot”. There are hundreds of thousands of road signs in Britain, all providing drivers with a constant stream of information they have to digest.

On the surface, this seems like a good thing. After all, if there’s a risk of an event occurring or an instruction you need to obey, then you want to know about it in the simplest way possible. Road signs seem like a simple way of accomplishing this.

But are they?

It might sound bizarre, but there’s a school of thought that suggests that road signs aren’t actually beneficial for drivers. In fact, they could actually be causing problems. This sounds extremely strange to any seasoned driver who is accustomed to glancing at road signs constantly as they drive, but it’s true. Those road signs could be foe rather than

Too much information

When learning to drive, we’re all told that we have to keep our eyes on the road in front. Distraction is bad; focusing on the road is good. However, road signs frequently require us to lift our gaze from the road itself and read a sign. And sometimes, we have to read a lot of signs, especially in busy town centres.

Sometimes, the sheer amount of information we have to digest from a sign — or a number of signs — is completely overwhelming. Multiple signs can indicate multiple facts, and we have to digest them all in a split second.

It’s impossible to know which signs we can dismiss and which we have to read. Our mind has been distracted by signs, and had to process them, before it’s really a conscious thought. That means we can find ourselves driving through terrifying torrential rain, still momentarily distracted. Our attention is grabbed by a sign warning us about parking restrictions on a nearby road, or advertising the nearest tourist sites. That means we’re distracted from a dangerous task to be informed of something we don’t need to know.

Even the signs we need can be problematic

Given the above, the solution may seem to be to remove road signs that include anything but the most important information. However, this isn’t necessarily a fix— because many people believe, and many experiments have proved, we don’t need any road signs.

In 2008, the German town of Bohmte removed all road signs; even those we would consider the most essential. The town issued a regional 30mph speed limit and explained all should yield to the right. After that, drivers were on their own, as they also removed traffic lights.

It sounds like an accident waiting to happen… but it wasn’t. In the four-week initial trial,there wasn’t a single accident, and other similar trials have shown similar results.

This isn’t actually that surprising. With no directions, signs, or traffic lights, drivers have to think for themselves— and that means they have to be more cautious. Road signs actually make us all rather cavalier drivers. We sit and wait for instructions rather than actively trying to navigate the road layout.

The simple truth is that for roads to be safer, they have to feel as if they aren’t safe. That sounds bizarre, but it’s a simple fact of human nature. Signs, traffic lights, and other forms of external guidance essentially let part of our mind shut off when we’re driving. We focus instead on the radio or the next stop on our parcel delivery route. We do this because we can, because we know the signs and the lights are going to provide the information we need.

If the signs and lights don’t do that, then we panic. We forget about everything but driving. We pay attention to everything; we’re more cautious. Then our uncertainty about what to do at a junction (for example) actually makes us better drivers. The safer
and more secure we feel on the road, the worse our driving becomes— it’s a funny, but very real, quirk of the human mind.

So will we see the back of road signs?

Realistically, no. Governments like road signs, even if the evidence doesn’t point in their favour.

However, there is some sign that the UK government is at least investigating the issues caused by non-essential road signs. In 2015, the government launched a taskforce to examine the “scourge of pointless road signs”. In 2018, it was announced the isn’t a full reexamination of our love of road signs that may actually be causing harm, but it’s a start.

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