The number of people killed on the roads in Scotland has fallen to a record low.
Good. But there is danger lurking in this news, there is risk hidden behind the figures, and it is that local councils and the Scottish Government will make the assumption that the drop in casualties is in some way due to the controls imposed on drivers: white lines, parking meters, traffic lights, bollards, traffic wardens, speed limits, cameras, and bus lanes. In fact, there is evidence the opposite is the case and the best way forward from here is to switch off the parking meters, rip up the traffic lights, pay off the traffic wardens and paint over the white lines.
Take the village of Oldmeldrum, Aberdeenshire, for instance. I know it well. It is where my father grew up and my grandparents lived all their lives. It was once a quiet agricultural community but, over the years, it has become a busy commuter village. This is good for the economy and vibrancy of the place, but there is a serious downside in the volume of traffic, which in recent years has made the village square a busy and dangerous place to be.
In response, Aberdeenshire Council, to its immense credit, has done pretty much the opposite of what every other council does in such circumstances - which is to indulge its instinct for control. It has abolished the rules. It has taken away the signs telling drivers to give way and stop. It has painted over all the lines. And chaos has not broken out. According to the council, the early evidence is drivers have slowed down. They are more cautious. Safer.
Oldmeldrum is not an isolated example. A similar experiment was tried in Drachten, Holland - no white lines, no rights of way, no traffic lights, no pavements even - and the result was a drop in accidents. This is because traffic controls, introduced with good intentions, make drivers behave like automatons. Green means go, so we go. Red means stop, so we stop. Remove the controls and drivers rely on their judgment. They become more cautious. Just think how you behave when you approach a junction where the traffic lights are broken and you will know this is true.
There are other good reasons for reforming how roads are laid out. The first is the purely aesthetic one: road signs, bollards and traffic lights are ugly, so either we have them redesigned by great artists and make them wondrous and beautiful or we get rid of them.
More seriously, streamlining city streets would help traffic flow. As reported in The Herald this week, Liverpool City Council has suspended its bus lanes because it suspects the lanes are exacerbating congestion. In response, the Institute Of Advanced Motoring has called on Glasgow City Council to do the same, although, sadly, Glasgow appears to be standing firm, probably because the council can see the lovely millions it is earning from enforcement cameras.
Parking meters are run in the same way, with similar results. Money is made, traffic wardens are paid, and the businessmen and women on the high street can only sigh as they watch from the windows of their shops. As Local Government Minister Brandon Lewis, whose responsibilities include high streets, suggested yesterday, meters could well be deterring people from shopping on the high street and switching them off could give town centres more pulling power against the mighty black holes of out-of-town malls.
The alternative is to carry on regardless: the meters continue to suck in cash and we are kept neatly between the white lines the council pays to have painted and then pays to have enforced.
Left to my own devices, I would probably go much further than simply switching parking meters off. I would like us to remove as many of the controls of the road as we can, from traffic lights to white lines, from bollards to give way signs, but that is because I am libertarian by instinct and the idea of unnecessary control by government makes me itch.
But even those who are authoritarian rather than libertarian should be able to see the reasons for removing many of the controls on traffic. It would flow better, we would save the millions spent on maintaining the ugly paraphernalia of the street.
Best of all: we would probably be safer too.
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