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Fooled Drivers, or Foolish Drivers?

I’m not sure if, lurking somewhere in NHTSA’s databases, there’s a category for “Car-House Crash” (no worries about coding for culpability there!), but, judging by the news reports I get, it happens more than you’d think.

It recently happened to a man in Toronto. Twice. Within three weeks. The article in the Toronto Star notes that residents and engineers think poor road design is to blame:

Johansen and other area residents blame the accidents on a reconfiguration of the Park Lawn-South Kingslea intersection a few years ago. The new intersection was moved a few metres west, and curves to the left just before the stop sign. But a laneway to the right, near the stop sign, can create an optical illusion that may fool some drivers into thinking it’s South Kingslea, and that the stop sign is in a traffic island in the middle of the intersection. As a result, they end up on the wrong side of the sign.

At least that’s the theory of Allan Smithies, who’s in charge of traffic planning in that area.

I haven’t been to the intersection in question, and it’s hard to draw inference from a photo, but as pictured above, I’m not quite sure what the source of confusion is. I see a Stop Sign, I quite plainly see a house. More importantly, I see other houses. It is a neighborhood. Neighborhoods are places where you don’t drive at speeds that would prevent you from not being able to crash into a house.

The local response was to place a set of “jersey barriers” in front of the house. The idea of living like the American embassy in Beruit didn’t please the homeowner.

But after assessing the path of the two vehicles that ended up in his house, Johansen said the barricade would be more likely to stop another vehicle if it was put up on the other side of South Kingslea, next to the stop sign and across the sidewalk on the east side of Park Lawn.

“I don’t want that ugly cement wall across my front yard, especially when it won’t stop another car,” unless it’s positioned across the laneway, he explained.

Rather than allow the barrier to be dropped in his yard, which he says would stigmatize his home as the target for airborne vehicles and not prevent further assaults, Johansen said he told city workers to stick it.

I can utterly side with the homeowner’s sentiment on this. Residential streets are not meant to be places for guard-rails, concrete barriers, and other aspects of the “forgiving road,” just as residents should not have to wear crash helmets when they go out for a walk. As I’ve argued here before, I’d rather see trees planted mid-block, every block, in the center of the block. Apart from that, there must be some better solution here than jersey barriers, any host of traffic calming treatments.

Of course, one doesn’t usually have to dig too deep in these stories to find the real source of the problem.

Around 1 a.m. yesterday, a car driven by a 25-year-old man hit a curb, flew through the master bedroom window of the house and landed on the residents’ bed. Police say alcohol was a factor in the crash and the driver has been charged with impaired driving.

This takes “breaking and entering” to a new level. But in any case, we see that it wasn’t necessarily some strange road illusion causing the problem, it was the fact that the driver was hammered. He was creating his own illusions.

What’s more, the article notes:

Neighbours in the area say many people don’t heed the nearby stop sign, which has been taken out a few times by previous collisions.

Now, I agree that good design of any sort should help users avoid unnecessary mistakes, or at least not make them more prone to make mistakes (TV remote-controls are notorious for this). But at what point do we say enough’s enough? As Hans Monderman has said, there are some drivers which no road can save. As, I’ve argued in Traffic, bringing the “foolproof” design of the forgiving road into places like neighborhoods not only cheapens the neighborhood, it increases the risk-taking behavior of drivers. I noticed that one poster referred to the fact that the “sightlines” were good; the problem with “sight distance” is that drivers simply consume the extra visibility with greater speed. It could even be that the stop sign itself is a problem — drivers are looking at that rather than scanning the actual terrain. Or maybe it’s just a Canadian snow and ice thing.

Now, I realize I’m sounding off here, and I recognize that traffic engineers, who must wrestle with the many-footed beast of human behavior, do not have an easy job by any means. If this finds its way to Mr. Smithies (or the homeowners) I’d be curious to hear more about the case.

(Horn honk to David)

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This entry was posted on Thursday, February 26th, 2009 at 10:45 am and is filed under Drivers, Traffic Engineering, Traffic safety. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

4 Responses to “Fooled Drivers, or Foolish Drivers?”

  1. Paul Souders Says:

    I agree with your conclusions re: barriers, sightlines, and forgiving roads. But when I first saw this photo (and before reading the text) I assumed the stop sign was planted on a traffic island.

    in my uneducated opinion and based only on a single photo, if I lived at that intersection I’d push to remove the stop sign and wreck the sightline with a planting directly on the corner.

  2. Eric Says:

    Here’s my guess.

    The driveway to the right, just before the stop sign, maybe appears to be a continuation of the road. So at night, confused people apparently drive to the right of the stop sign (b/w the orange cones). This causes them to bounce severely, maybe get some air before they hit the street. And then due to the surprise and further confusion, they either don’t brake or hit the gas, causing them to race across the street, jump the curb, and end up in the house.

  3. Matt Says:

    A heavier option would be a speed hump across the road to force drivers to slow down (or wake up tired/drunk drivers).

  4. David Hembrow Says:

    I can see the problem here. There was a junction near where I lived in the UK which offered the same kind of optical illusion of a straight line for driving, which was actually a one way slip road in the opposite direction.

    The Dutch are better at this and it’s rare to see something which looks like something else.

    Residential areas tend to look rather like this even if they are 1950s vintage with longer straighter (US-style) boulevards. Such design sends a very strong signal to drive slowly and carefully.

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Traffic Tom Vanderbilt

How We Drive is the companion blog to Tom Vanderbilt’s New York Times bestselling book, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), published by Alfred A. Knopf in the U.S. and Canada, Penguin in the U.K, and in languages other than English by a number of other fine publishers worldwide.

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