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Traffic Engineers: Thieves of Time

The suburban streets of America are ridiculously wide, eliminating any sense of neighborhood. A trip across the street is not only a serious undertaking, requiring several layers of clothes in winter and a canteen and backpack in summer, it downright dangerous for the nation’s children, as they remain exposed on the street for 50% longer than they would were the street widths normal. The suburban sprawl exacerbated by the excess land necessary for these bloated boulevards makes any effort toward rapid transit difficult, if not impossible.

Why do we have such a foolish situation? Because a committee of traffic engineers in the 1940s decided that, for maximum safety, streets should allow two firetrucks to pass by each other at 50 miles per hour. Just the thing you want: Firetrucks drag-racing in your cul-de-sac.

Having achieved this milestone, these same fools:

  1. Enclosed shopping mall parking lots, so that you have to drive an extra five miles to get to the exit, aiding and abetting air pollution.
  2. Posted signs on major thoroughfares so you can’t hang a U-Turn for ten or fifteen miles past the logical place to do so, again ensuring you have the most time possible to enjoy our nation’s roadways, while polluting them.
  3. Developed 8-way controlled intersections with individual left turn lights. In Silicon Valley, these lights typically only complete a full cycle around every six and a half hours. Miss the light and you’ll be lucky to get to work by 3:00.
  4. Double-striped all the country roads so that if you get behind a slow car, you will remain so until you reach the outskirts of Cleveland. There's an added benefit: now that these empty roads have a stripe down the middle, you can no longer drive down the middle of the road where you might have time to avoid being struck by a deer that suddenly darts onto the road. Instead, with your being a foot from the underbrush, it's instant thud!
  5. Forbade, except in the most enlightened states, left turns against the red left arrow, even when there is not another car within 800 miles.
  6. Having built neighborhood streets capable of hosting a grande prix, they then constructed all manner of ugly barricades and barriers, humps and dips, ensuring that no one could actually drive on the streets, including fire trucks. That shunted most traffic onto a few widespread arteries, ensuring that you can enjoy bumper-to-bumpter traffic even at four in the morning.

All of this work is supposed to save lives, but let’s look at the numbers:

In 1992, 39,985 people met their deaths on the USA’s roadways. Let us say, for sake of argument, that all the delays and obstructions the traffic engineers have thrown in our paths is saving lives in an amount equal to 50% of that figure, or around 20,000 people. (I suspect this figure is quite high, but let’s give the traffic engineers the benefit of the doubt.)

The odds of your being one of those additional 20,000 people killed would be pretty slight: these extra deaths would work out to 7.8 people per 100,000 population. But we can't really work with that statistic until we compute the amount of time out of our lives we would lose were we one of those victims. Traffic accident victims die around 31 years before their time on average. 31 years works out to 275,064 hours. This is the total time the traffic engineers are adding to each of those 20,000 lives by their mighty efforts.

Here’s the final step that lets us see what the traffic engineers have done to us: Take that 275,064 hours and multiply it by the slim chance of your being a victim in the first place (7.8654E-5) and you get the average time per year that the traffic engineers are saving you by protecting you from yourself: 21 hours, 38 minutes, and 6 seconds.

Compare that annual figure to the time these guys are costing you by making you drive way out of your way and wait interminably at traffic lights. I figure I lose a conservative 15 minutes per day, or around 91 hours and 15 minutes per year.

If you subtract the time the traffic engineers are “saving” you through their misplaced efforts from the time they are robbing you of while you wait and wait and wait, it comes to a loss, in my case, of just under 60 hours a year. That’s two and a half days a year, or around six months over the course of my lifetime. Six months taken out of my life!

One of the early self-styled traffic engineers was the guy that laid out San Francisco’s Market Street in the 1840s. This clown built a main street that started from nowhere (still does), ended nowhere (still does), and was wide enough to turn a 12-horse team (the 1800s equivalent to the silliness of a couple of joy-riding fire trucks). When the good people of San Francisco discovered this fool had neatly and permanently cleaved their city in half, they formed a vigilance committee and did their best to lynch him. Unfortunatly, he escaped in a rowboat to Sausalito.

I want my six months back! Traffic engineers are motivated by a desire to control and a desire to remain employed. Safety comes third, and the rights and freedom of the people is not even on the list. I’m ready to form a vigilance committee of my own. You up for it?


  3. Howard, Philip K., The Death of Common Sense: How Law is Suffocating America, Random House, 1995

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