We need roads fit for people

Opinion - Martin Cassini

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Accidents are not accidents. They are incidents arising from conflicts contrived by the rules and design of the road, argues Martin Cassini, of FiT Roads...

Martin Cassini

If an observer from an advanced civilisation visited earth, what would they think of our road system? What would they see?

From above, traffic clustered at lights like iron filings at the poles of a magnet with empty road space in between. Clumps of traffic accelerating away, some leading, some trailing, stopped short at the next intersection for no apparent reason.

At ground level, vehicles piloted by ‘beings’ with faces showing resignation, rage or frustration as they stop and start not according to the needs of the moment, but in obedience to robots with multicoloured eyes that change in sequence. Babies in prams on fenced-in islands in rivers of traffic, inhaling fumes, their minders waiting for the signal to cross. Pilots watching the robots, not the ‘beings’ on foot.

A light changes, traffic races off, a ‘being’ is hit and lies still. Traffic stops until a white vehicle with siren blaring removes the lifeless form.

River of traffic

On country roads they would see the main river of traffic hurrying along, with the tributaries waiting indefinitely to cross or join, getting hit or honked at in the process.

What would our observer think? I don’t know, but I know what I think. Our traffic control system, with main road priority at its heartless core, stimulates speed, promotes stress, encourages delinquency, conjures congestion and renders roads lethal.


“We need rescuing from decades of negative conditioning so we can watch the road and act on context, compassion and commonsense”

The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents and the RAC welcomed news that last year 229 fewer people were killed on UK roads last year. Should we be congratulating anyone for overseeing 2,946 deaths on our roads?

Most ‘accidents’ are not accidents at all. They are events arising from conflicts contrived by the rules and design of the road.

Conventional safety measures fail to address the fatal flaw at the heart of the system: main road priority. Priority makes roads lethal by conferring superior rights-of-way on main roads at the expense of minor road traffic and pedestrians.

In all other walks of life we take our turn in the sequence in which we arrive. Not so on the roads, where main road traffic is licensed to plough on, regardless of who was there first. To break the priority streams so others can cross, in relative but not guaranteed safety, lights are ‘needed’. Lights set up intolerable conflicts. What do you do if you’re approaching a green light at a legal 30 mph and a child appears in your path, but an unsighted 10-tonne truck is on your tail?

The system puts the onus on children to beware vehicles. Is that reasonable? When lights are out of action and there is uncertainty about priority, people approach slowly and give way to others who were there first. The onus shifts to where it belongs: drivers bewaring pedestrians, now seen as fellow road-users rather than obstacles. Even blind people can move in safety.

“One thing is certain,” says the US Best Highway Safety Practices Institute, “when given a choice, the vast majority act in a co-operative manner.” The trouble is, the system deprives us of choice.

Roads fit for people. Fit for children. Not a traffic sign, signal or camera in sight. Drivers watching the road, giving way to pedestrians, filtering in turn. No fear of danger or reprisal. Roads and streets a safe, convivial public realm where all road-users co-exist in peace. What is this – a dream?


No. A world of civilised shared space could become reality if policymakers harnessed human nature instead of hampering it. In places like Drachten in Holland and Bohmte in Germany, it already has.

We need rescuing from decades of negative conditioning so we can watch the road and act on context, compassion and commonsense. Then children and other tender road-users will be free of the danger that lurks on every street because of the dangerous rules of the road as currently misconceived.

When will we be free to filter merrily on FiT Roads - Roads FiT for People?

FiT Roads is an organisation dedicated to advancing the right of all road-users to use commonsense and courtesy on roads free of counterproductive traffic controls. Further information is available at www.fitroads.org

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