Basically it boils down to this: There are too many signs on the roads and most are not seen, respected, or understood by drivers*. It would be safer to remove all regulatory signs from the roadways and allow drivers to navigate under looser constraints.
The theory says that if drivers need to pay more attention to where they are going, and how they will get there, they will process more stimuli than if they depend on striping and signage. This should lead to fewer collisions due to heightened awareness. So far, according to the linked article, it seems to be working in some european locations.
But wait! Transportation isn’t only about safety. If you wanted to be perfectly safe on the road, you’d stay home and never enter your vehicle. To quote the Texas Department of Transportation’s mission statement, they invest in “providing safe, effective and efficient movement of people and goods.” Transportation is necessary for commerce, and the amount of commerce is directly related to the amount of “stuff” that gets moved around. Providing an unregulated driving environment may reduce collisions (it has) but it will probably also reduce the amount of stuff that can be moved through that unregulated zone.
I don’t see this being some sort of panacea. Under certain circumstances it will work, I’m sure, but it must be carefully coordinated with community planning and with the design of the transportation network. High-speed, high-capacity routes like the interstate system in America, which are designed for high throughput “of people and goods” require specific regulation. Lower-speed, lower-capacity collectors and local roads would be much more appropriate for this experiment. Some sort of “small town America” would be ideal, but only if you don’t have a US 1 running through the center of town. Of course, if you live in a subdivision, you may already experience what is going on here. I’ve been in many with no stop signs or striping, merely the understanding that you’re not supposed to t-bone your neighbor at 50 mph on the way to work.
Also, journalism as usual isn’t quite hitting the mark with what is written. I don’t think the linked story details the rules behind this no-rules approach. For example, the picture in the article shows Drachten, Netherlands, which is converting its remaining signalized intersections to roundabouts, which have very definitive rules of travel, if you want them to work correctly. Striping is key, and I don’t think people would take kindly to you going around backwards. The article also mentions that Drachten has scrapped “more than half” of their signs. Well, I could probably go out today and scrap 50% of the signs on the roads in Cobb County Georgia without affecting a single black-and-white regulatory sign. Pay attention on your next drive and see how many signs are littered along the roads. And don’t include the ones that are put up by private concerns, just the highway signs. There are hundreds, and it would be easy to get rid of a number of them immediately.
Bottom line: There are many ways of doing things with respect to transportation infrastructure. No one solution works everywhere. The “waves and nods” approach might work in Drachten but it might be a disaster in Los Angeles, California. Careful consideration of the impacts a transportation project or initiative might have is necessary to avoid costly mistakes. Be involved in the transportation project development in your neck of the woods and you might push your muncipality/county/state into doing something a bt more in line with what your community wants.
*This is FACT! If you don’t believe me, tell me what this sign means. If you get it right (and I haven’t already told you and you’re not in the transportation field, I’ll give you a prize. Like your very own blog entry or something…) Many research studies have shown that drivers will ignore signs they feel are unnecessary, like absurdly low speed limits or unwarranted stop signs. Also, in dense environments with numerous regulatory signs, guidesigns, advertisements, roads, lane changes, pedestrians, and other stimuli needing the driver’s attention, the most important signs (such as STOP) are not necessarily the ones a driver will “see”. Unfamiliar drivers will tend to make late decisions in these areas, leading to inappropriate responses such as lane-crossing and sudden stops.