CBS Finds Less Govt Regulation Means Fewer Traffic Accidents in Dutch Town

On Saturday’s CBS Evening News, correspondent Mark Phillips filed a report that lends credibility to the conservative or libertarian theory that too much regulation can be counterproductive and even lead to results opposite to those intended, as he highlighted a town in the Netherlands that took the seemingly radical step of removing all its traffic lights and road signs. Rather than resulting in more dangerous roads, the number of traffic accidents dropped substantially, presumably because road users – which even includes many bicyclists and pedestrians – were forced to think for themselves to navigate the intersections in the absence of rules set by the government.

Anchor Jeff Glor introduced the report: "Can you imagine having no traffic lights or signs or any other way of keeping cars and people apart? The results would be dangerous chaos, right? Well, Mark Phillips tells us what happened when one town in Holland tried."

Phillips began his report by recounting the story of the busiest intersection in Drachten, in the Netherlands, where – despite the presence of many bicyclists and pedestrians – the removal of traffic lights resulted in a reduction in accidents:

The normal civic response here and elsewhere has been to put in more traffic lights, divide the roadway into lanes, control things. But the response in Drachten has been the opposite. They took the controls away, and a funny thing happened. The accident rate around this intersection went down – way down – from more than eight a year to fewer than two.

After describing the "Shared Space" theory of urban planning, Phillips clarified that the approach relies on individual responsibility: "The idea is that this takes responsibility away from the traffic engineers and puts it on the individual."

Now, if only CBS would realize that a similar principle of encouraging individuals to think for themselves would also work better on issues like saving for retirement or choosing a school for one’s children.

Below is a complete transcript of the report from the Saturday, September 5, CBS Evening News:

JEFF GLOR: Can you imagine having no traffic lights or signs or any other way of keeping cars and people apart? The results would be dangerous chaos, right? Well, Mark Phillips tells us what happened when one town in Holland tried.

MARK PHILLIPS: They've got a lot of faith in human nature in the small Dutch down of Drachten. Its main intersection is a busy place where cars and trucks compete with people on bicycles and others on foot. The normal civic response here and elsewhere has been to put in more traffic lights, divide the roadway into lanes, control things. But the response in Drachten has been the opposite. They took the controls away, and a funny thing happened. The accident rate around this intersection went down – way down – from more than eight a year to fewer than two.

NIESKE KETELAAR, CITY COUNSELOR OF DRACHTEN, THE NETHERLANDS: We wanted to appeal to social behavior, people's own behavior and responsibility.

PHILLIPS: The city council here decided to implement a new philosophy in urban planning called "Shared Space." Left to their own devices, the thinking goes, people use their own devices.

KETELAAR: A little bit of chaos helps people to think for themselves, be alert and react on the situation.

PHILLIPS: Not far away, in the village of Makkinga, the sign you see as you approach town is the last sign you'll see. All traffic signals and notices have been removed. Everyone – from school kids to truck drivers – is on their own.

MARLIES BOUMA, TEACHER: You see the children looking, where can I cross? What's a good place to cross?

PHILLIPS: The whole point of the "Shared Space" idea is that it changes behavior. Drivers no longer look for road signs or traffic lights. They look for people on foot or on bicycles. People on bikes have to watch out for themselves and for those in cars and on foot. And those walking have to watch out for everybody. The idea is that this takes responsibility away from the traffic engineers and puts it on the individual. The idea is catching on in bigger places. There are now "Shared Space" schemes in several countries in Western Europe and some being considered in America.

BEN HAMILTON-BAILLIE, SHARED SPACE DESIGNER: As soon as you remove the certainty provided by signals and lines and regulation, then the attitude of drivers changes completely. This is one of the paradoxes-

PHILLIPS: That’s a tough sell, though.

HAMILTON-BAILLIE: It's a tough sell. It's very difficult, and it's not surprising that people feel uncomfortable with this idea. It takes a while.

PHILLIPS: But where it's been tried, the people and the dropping accident statistics say it works. Mark Phillips, CBS News, Drachten, Holland.