Traffic Control: An Exercise in Self-Defeat

By Todd, Kenneth | Regulation, Fall 2004 | Go to article overview

Traffic Control: An Exercise in Self-Defeat


Todd, Kenneth, Regulation


THE TRAFFIC CONTROL SYSTEM WE HAVE today was put together in the early days of the automobile by public officials who knew little about regulating the new means of locomotion. They adopted traffic laws without prior research, on the basis of subjective opinion. No underlying philosophy saw to it that traffic regulation met its purpose: safe and expeditious travel at an economical cost to the road user and taxpayer, with the least inconvenience to anyone.

Into traffic regulations crept misconceptions and contradictions that have killed innumerable people, cause massive traffic jams, waste innumerable hours of time and vast quantities of fuel, pollute the air, and lead to unjust decisions in civil accident litigation. The system violates basic legal, engineering, and safety principles, and billions of dollars are spent on high-tech computer equipment intended to overcome self-inflicted problems.

IN THE BEGINNING Before there were any statutory right-of-way rules, no one had a superior right; all had equal and mutual rights under common law to be exercised so as not to interfere unreasonably with the rights of others. The supreme rule of the road was the rule of mutual forbearance. Drivers had to be on the lookout for pedestrians and other traffic, and have their vehicles under such control that they could avoid causing collisions and unnecessary obstruction.

A driver who was about to enter an intersection let anyone who was already in it get out first, just as it is common sense and common courtesy to let someone get out of an elevator or phone booth before we get in. Thus, some courts began to rule in the mid-1880s, even before the automobile arrived on the scene, that anyone who arrived first or had already entered the intersection had the right-of-way under common law. A common law "first-come, first-served" regime survives today in the all-way stop, a traffic control for which no U.S. state has adopted a statutory right-of-way rule.

All this changed at the turn of the last century when a few municipalities issued ordinances to determine who had to give way to whom. But they did not investigate if the ordinances made traffic run better or worse than under common law. First, some cities gave northbound and southbound traffic priority over vehicles traveling east and west, while others gave eastbound and westbound vehicles priority over those going north and south. The rules proved unworkable even if one took the precaution of carrying a compass.

Then, a rule imported from France gave priority to vehicles on the right. The rule paralyzed traffic when drivers entered an intersection from all directions and obstructed each other from leaving. Traffic runs with minimal control if a driver who wants to enter an intersection gives way to all those who are trying to leave, as it was done under common law--that is, to those on the left and to the left-turners from the opposite direction. The modern roundabout--an improved version of the old traffic circle--works that way. But whether or not it comes in the shape of a roundabout, an intersection can operate under the yield-to-the-left rule in countries where motorists drive on the right side of the road.

Finally, the rule of giving vehicles on major roads priority over those on minor roads was adopted throughout the United States in the 1920s. The concept originated from railroad practice, where main-line trains have the right-of-way over those on the branch lines.

WHAT MAKES INTERSECTIONS DANGEROUS? The most frequent and most severe type of accident at a major-minor road intersection is the right-angle collision, generally blamed on the side-street driver's right-of-way violation. The major road makes motorists go fast without looking left or right, while side-street drivers have the complex task of finding safe gaps to pass through several vehicle and pedestrian movements. Safety advocates insist that omplex tasks distract our attention from one conflict while we concentrate on another; road users should have to deal with only one conflict at a time. …

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