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Time to switch off the traffic lights?

Friday, October 21, 2016 8:56
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While reading the Daily Mail in our dentist’s waiting room, a piece about useless traffic lights caught my eye. I haven’t found it in the online version, but here are two quotes.

It’s absolutely true that this country is rapidly becoming gridlocked. But we can’t heap the blame solely on cycle lanes and van drivers.The main cause of congestion is an overabundance of traffic lights.

This certainly chimes with me. For over twenty years I commuted to Nottingham, passing through dozens of sets of traffic lights. Yet whenever the lights failed, traffic seemed to move just as quickly and just as smoothly. The optimum traffic flow sorted itself out, possibly because most drivers were experienced city drivers who knew when to go and when to give way. The writer of the Mail piece has a similar but more dramatic story.

I work as an agent for a consumables company, driving about 600 miles a week. I drive about five days a week, but lose the equivalent of almost one day every week just sitting in traffic waiting for the lights to change. In the past year or so, most people will have seen or read reports about the flooding here in Cumbria. It meant a lot of problems for most road users – but the damage also caused most of the traffic lights to break down. 

This resulted in traffic moving swiftly around towns without any jams or delays. Motorists managed to arrive at work on time and managed to get home earlier than usual. I was able to call on more customers and increase my earnings. Tradesmen reported they had more time to complete more jobs because they could get around more easily.   

There is an interesting question one could ask with wider ramifications than traffic lights. Assuming the above story reflects a genuine problem with traffic lights, how likely is it that any UK government would ever do something as radical as switching them off? Government is certainly aware of the issue.

Andrew Jones, the Road Safety minister, suggested he has noticed that traffic “flows more freely” when traffic lights are not working in his constituency.

He said he will consider calls for a pilot on the idea after Philip Hollobone, a Conservative MP, said that the move could relieve congestion.

But Mr Jones added the inevitable caveat -

“I will have a look at what you say but I think we should be very cautious about removing traffic lights because they’re a key ingredient in road safety.”
How did he know? His officials probably told him. As they do.


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