Rolling Back the Rules of the Road

Traffic ConeThe Christian Science Monitor has a fascinating piece on how traffic laws cause accidents, by diminishing the attention that drivers pay to the roads and reducing their reliance on their own best judgement. Could their complete absence improve matters?

There is clearly a simple trade-off here. Drivers can choose to concentrate on the road, thus making them better equipped to react to unexpected occurrences and more aware of their surroundings. They could alternatively just trust the lights and the signs.

In a world with traffic laws (pedestrian crossings, traffic lights, etc.) where the rules of the road were perfect and assiduously observed by all drivers and pedestrians, there would probably be little need to pay attention. Accidents under such circumstances would be very seldom, so it might not be worth the effort.

But in a rule-based environment where pedestrians often cross the road unexpectedly in the face of bad or irresponsible drivers in a rush, there are still risks that need attention. This is the reality we live in.

Drivers will thus trade off the benefits of paying sincere attention to the road against the costs, and choose the optimal attention level. “Trusting the lights and the signs for the most part is good enough for me” they might say. But that’s no guarantee that they are actually minimising the number of traffic accidents.

In fact, there is no obviously superior system to my mind. It is plausible that there are societies which have lower accident rates under a system based on the rules of the road than they would under anarchy – the absence of any traffic laws whatsoever.

But empirical research appears to suggest that anarchy actually reduces the number of accidents and fatalities. Without any guidance from traffic laws and conventions, drivers have to pay the strictest attention to the road or suffer the consequences. As a result, everyone is more careful.

Are they happier? Who knows. After all, they would have to pay more attention when they’re travelling, and there’s no way of weighing those costs and benefits against each other. Unless of course, the road system was left to market – and free individuals were left to decide for themselves without government control.

Does the ubiquity of traffic laws indicate that society prefers the rule-based environment? In which, drivers and pedestrians can pay scant attention to their surroundings – but at the increased risk of getting into an accident than under anarchy. Hardly. Most people probably believe that the rules of the road save lives. So maybe if they were educated about the real risks, they might prefer the anarchy system? Tacit support for regulation of traffic may just constitute false consciousness.

It should be no surprise that the presence of regulation and guidance regarding risk is actually counter-productive though. In the financial system, savers contributed to the recent credit crisis by placing their savings in sketchy banks. They presumed that government regulation of risk-taking by financial institutions made their money safe.

But when coupled with government guarantees of their savings, it was a recipe for negligence as people didn’t take the time to analyse the risks themselves associated with a particular bank. Might individuals have done a better job than government regulators at recognising the risks in the financial system if they didn’t have a watch-dog they could trust?

© The Free Marketeer 2009

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8 Responses to Rolling Back the Rules of the Road

  1. informationsecretary says:

    “Cyclists who wear protective helmets are more likely to be knocked down by passing vehicles”

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/england/somerset/5334208.stm

  2. andrew L says:

    Wouldn’t countrieo the road, but some people going batshit insane and driving crazily because they’re willing to be careless and take risks. s such as Vietman and India constitute an anarchy system? And while I have no data for this, aren’t these countries deathtraps when it comes to driving?

    In the absence of regulation, perhaps you get some people paying more attention tThese people would cause more accidents in an anarchy system than would be caused by regulation in a regulated system.

  3. andrew L says:

    gah. comment system appears to have butchered my above comment

  4. thefreemarketeers says:

    I suspect what you were getting at (before the comment system assaulted your remark) is that wreckless drivers are more dangerous under anarchy, although everyone else is more careful. So therein lies the ambiguity.

    Empirically though, the latter effect outweighs the former and we have fewer accidents. I also don’t think that irresponsible drivers can get considerably more dangerous on the road before they lose their license?

  5. I think that free market economists which focus on traffic laws are focusing their attention on the wrong thing. The argument shouldn’t be against traffic laws in general, but against inane traffic laws.

    In a privatized road system each company is likely to enforce its own traffic laws, based upon profit and loss. In other words, that company will enforce regulations by social contract on the people that choose to use that company’s road, and these regulations will be based upon actual demand. For example, let’s say that there’s a four-way intersection that has no signs. It produces accidents. Demand for that road drops, due to the rate of accidents. The owner puts in a stop sign, decreasing the rate of accidents, and there is an increase in demand for that road again.

    Arguments against regulation should focus on the efficiency of centralized regulation and privatized regulation.

  6. thefreemarketeers says:

    I’m still not completely convinced that the road system is better privatised, given its current state. Facilitating competition is a precondition of market-fuelled better outcomes. Although I’m supportive in principle, a persuasive and reasonable blueprint for transition remains to be see in my eyes. Gradual privatisation is almost certainly the way forward though, and happily progress is being made in areas like motorways.

    I think it is worth opening up both kinds of debates though. Even if I’ve ignored who sets the rules, the market or the government will ultimately be deciding between anarchy and rule-based organisation. I prefer the former, until a market mechanism tells me otherwise. Even centralised regulation can be improved upon to everyone’s benefit.

  7. Left-wing Commie Pinko says:

    Flaw: The piece linked doesn’t, in fact, empirically demonstrate that “No traffic laws” yields less accidents than “some traffic laws”, it shows that a sensible designed system of traffic laws (example: Britain, hardly a haven of laws-free traffic) is better than the US system of random stop signs and poorly designed laws. I’d be curious to see links to empiric evidence from countries that actually have complete lawless anarchy on their roads, and would suggest that in some of those countries (Andrew suggested Vietnam and India, so let’s use those as examples) the rate of reporting for minor-to-medium traffic accidents is less than in your average Western country, and so the data is immediately questionable.

  8. thefreemarketeers says:

    Although the piece in the CS Monitor does primarily compare the US and UK, it makes reference to research on cities that fulfil the criteria you just outlined:
    – The center of Drachten (a Dutch city of about 50,000) stripped away all regulatory traffic control features in 2005 and the number of traffic accidents declined dramatically according to Der Spiegel.
    – West Palm Beach in 2004 underwent a similar transformation.

    There are plenty of other cities in which the system (pioneered by a Dutch road traffic engineer called Hans Monderman) was implemented, and as far as I can tell there is loads of writing on it.

    Obviously, you could wonder whether the most perfect traffic control system ever conceived of by man would be safer than/superior to an extremely simple unregulated system – but that’s like maintaining communism is better that capitalism despite all evidence, because you think all attempts heretofor have been poorly-implemented.

    You are correct that comparing the countries you described might yield suspect results, but looking at cities within the same country (and broadly similar exogenous variables) or looking at the same city over time yields strong evidence to support opposition to traffic laws. If you can come up with the perfect traffic regulation system, I’m sure the results can be tested against anarchy then.

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