I have to admit, I am trying to change the world here. To no Avail, yes, but trying still. Here is a recent letter I sent to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Granted, they are busy trying to find excuses for all the traffic deaths their stupid rules cause. Yes, they do have the wonderful generic blame flame, "inattentive driving," but that doesn't really cut it with many who have had severe accidents when they were paying very close attention. I could go on and on... But instead, here is the letter...
Oh, and by the way, I NEVER got a reply of any kind from the NHTSA.
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Dear Highway Traffic Safety Administration Representative:
I am a retired behavioral psychologist who spent his career researching and teaching about human learning, performance optimization and signal-guided behavior. I am writing today as a result of two traffic accidents that I recently witnessed. I am motivated to write because both of these accidents had elements in common that can be easily addressed by simple changes in signage and or rules of the road. The common theme of these and many accidents that repeatedly occur in what your agency terms “inattentive driving” situations is conflicts between the signals present in intersections and the drivers’ well established habits. If we have learned anything in the human performance lab it is that when one uses the same signal to guide different actions, confusion and accidents arise. When a factory worker sees a flashing yellow light that means “STOP” or “DON’T MOVE!” in one situation or setting, but which means “PROCEED WITH CAUTION” in another, accidents will eventually happen. It is inevitable that the habit of proceeding with caution will eventually be invoked in the more dangerous setting resulting in equipment damage, injury or death. This is why we standardize signals of all kinds.
Modern transportation is an industry just like any other heavy industry. By now you may be wondering which specific signals I am talking about. It is the standard red stop sign which is currently being used in most states in two completely different situations in which opposite actions are needed. There is a third setting that is also affected by the rules governing stop-sign intersections that I will also address. For each of these problems I will suggest simple and inexpensive fixes that will save lives. Please do not dismiss these suggestions simply because they seem simple or because it is easier to attribute these accidents to “inattentive driving.” While it is true that we can always blame the driver for every accident, it is also true that the driver works in a designed environment that we can arrange to make accidents less likely. This is one such case.
The signal/action conflict I want to address first is that which arises in two-way stop intersections as a result of habitual actions that arise in four-way-stop intersections. Put as simply as possible, in the four-way intersection the driver stops looks and goes. Often this sequence occurs when oncoming traffic is approaching the intersection from a side street. The driver stops, looks, sees oncoming traffic, then drives across the intersection feeling safe because he knows that the oncoming driver will stop when he reaches the intersection. This situation establishes reactions that then arise in two-way stop intersections when a driver stops, sees oncoming traffic, then drives into the intersection. How many deaths could be averted if we could only prevent these accidents? The extremely simple solution to this problem is to make the two-way and four-way signs distinctly different. While a simple color change, say make the four-way yellow and the two-way red which would be appropriate because the standard signals use yellow for caution and red for more extreme danger. If the signs were different shapes, that would work as well. There will be a learning curve if this change is implemented, but such learning is generally swift and does not engender the kind of confusion that causes accidents.
A related issue involves the rules governing rights of way in uncontrolled, four-way-stop and “traffic-circle” intersections. The standard rule that as taught in all driver’s ed classes is that when two cars arrive at an uncontrolled or four-way-stop intersection the driver on the right has the right of way. The standard rule at the traffic-circle is the opposite, the driver on the left has the right of way. A great deal of confusion and resulting fender-bender accidents could be avoided if these rules were consistent. The simplest change would be to give the driver on the left the right of way in all of these situations. A related pedestrian problem arises in traffic circles when pedestrians try to cross from the drivers’ right side. Since drivers who are approaching these intersections must look left to determine if they need to stop, pedestrians approaching from the right are in grave danger. Pedestrian signals in traffic-circle intersections MUST ALWAYS instruct them to cross from the drivers’ left side even if this means they must go the “long way around.” In other words, the pedestrian must follow the same rule as the driver and circle through the intersection from left to right.
So, in summary, the simple application of one of the best documented and commonly applied signal-control principles, “Do not use the same signal to guide different actions.” can save lives in two-way stop intersections. And the clarification of and consistent use of right-of-way rules can save pedestrian lives in traffic-circle intersections and fenders in uncontrolled and four-way-stop intersections. I believe that when these kinks are straightened out we will not only find that lives are saved, but that several sources of traffic congestion and frustration will be relieved as well.
Please reply to this correspondence so that I will know the work I have invested has, at least, received an audience. If no reply, I will begin forwarding it or something more persuasive to my Senators and Congressmen. If I get no action there, I will approach my state traffic authority in an attempt to begin implementing these strategies locally. I believe that once we see how dramatically these simple changes improve safety and traffic flow, they will be broadly adopted.
Raymond Reed Hardy, Ph. D.
Retired Professor of Psychology