Tuesday, September 27, 2011

How to Reduce Congestion

Here's a poser. You have to reduce traffic congestion, but you're not allowed to build any roads or introduce road pricing. That's the question that's been asked of the all-party Commons Transport Committee. Let's see what they've come up with.

But first, a couple of thoughts. Building roads generally leads to more congestion, not less, as removing one bottleneck makes driving easier and, quicker, attracting more motorists until the dynamic equilibrium of the system is restored and you're back where you started. So that won't work. Road pricing by contrast seems to be the one solution that experts agree would ease congestion. It's only politicians that don't fancy their chances in convincing the electorate, which is why they've kicked it into the long grass.

The first idea the MPs have put forward is a tougher driving test.

"The overwhelming view from the evidence we received was that aspects of poor road user behaviour led to increased congestion...by directly causing incidents and accidents, often linked to safety issues; and secondly, by inappropriate road use, which is not necessarily unsafe, but which adversely affects the flow of traffic."

Quite right. Only problem is that if you make the driving test tougher, you don't tackle the bad habits of existing drivers. Instead you make it harder - and therefore more expensive - for young people to get a license. On the one hand, this is grossly unfair on a generation who is expected to pay massively more for their education, for housing, and now will be able to get fewer jobs that require them to drive, thus adding to the already large percentage of them that are unemployed. On the other hand, in terms of outcomes it's a great idea. Transport habits are cemented at a young age, so giving young people who aren't on a footballer's wage no option but to take the bus or use a bike would be a good thing for congestion and for the environment. And young people (young men in particular) are in general dangerously crap drivers, concerned with impressing girls, recklessly exploring the outer limits of their cars handing and speed capabilities, and generally learning by trial and error. So the fewer there are of them behind a wheel the better.

So what about those older drivers who passed their test when it was as difficult as scratching your butt and know as much about the Highway Code as Wayne Rooney knows about Baroque counterpoint?

"The MPs said motorists did not always keep up with updates to road signs and the law after they had passed their tests."

No kidding? Astounding!

"Changes to the Highway Code could also be placed more clearly on the DVLA website when motorists renewed a driving licence and be included in a leaflet with tax disk or licence renewal letters... "

I can see that going straight in the recycling...

"A free Highway Code mobile phone application is another way standards could be improved."

What, like Angry Birds?

Sorry, but improving your driving takes time, effort and commitment, and most people think their driving is good enough thanks very much and have no aspiration to make it better. The only thing that will change that, I suggest, is financial incentives and other rewards. For example, an advanced driving test, with the study and examination fees subsidized. An advanced test would likely lead to lower insurance premiums, and the Government could require professional drivers working in the public sector and all its suppliers to hold the new qualification. Other incentives such as the right to use the outside lane on motorways, differential speed limits (i.e. non-advanced drivers limited to 60MPH), and so on could be extended to advanced drivers.

Another suggestion the MPs made was this:

"the government to publish an assessment of traffic flow on the M4 in London since the bus lane was scrapped last November...the bus lane should be reinstated if evidence showed that, taking into account all travellers, it contributed to faster traffic movement."

About a year ago I predicted that closing the M4 bus lane would make journey times worse.

Roads Minister Mike Penning said "We will consider the committee's report carefully and respond in full in due course." We can't wait!


  1. There already exists an advanced driving test, and has done for decades. It is organised by the Institute of Advance Motorists (IAM). I'd like to have a go at it one day, but my impression is that not very many insurance companies ask for it so the financial benefits are negligible.

    I think you have slightly missed the point with regards to peoples driving abilities after passing their test.

    The assumption that you are not going to get any worse over 50-60 years of driving is absurd. The suggestions that seem to have been put forward are nonsense (iPhone app, really?)

    A bad driver (even one who has passed the imaginary advanced test) will only ever be caught if are found to commit a crime, or happen to be spotted by a policeman. There are many other drivers who are no reckless but none the less have exceptionally bad habits, or have forgotten the best practice methods of driving.

    Then there is the self certification for drivers over 60 or 70. This form is essentially "Tick this box to keep your license.". It is a medical form that does not require a professional to judge your health and ability to drive a car.

    I'd propose that people have to re-take their test every 10 years. This would require you to learn the new traffic rules, and at least once a decade drive sensibly.

    This will remove well-meaning, but dangerous drivers, reckless drivers and older drivers who are not fit to drive.

    We already have the infrastructure (test centres, driving instructors) to implement this. It takes political will, so I believe pigs will fly before I see it.

    Overall I think this would eventually reduce insurance premiums due to less drivers, and better driving. Things that people want but don't really want the ball ache of actually doing.

    Whilst this can be done by the government I doubt it will happen. I actually expect it to be something that insurance companies will implement.

    An insurance policy that says "We will give you cheap insurance if you can pass our driving skills test, to keep the policy you have to be re-tested every 1/5/10 years ...." would probably save everyone a lot of hassle.

  2. Hi Crossrider - I don't agree that an advanced test would be beneficial unless it was for people who drove as part of their work. The resulting license would have to have much stricter enforcement and be easier to lose.
    Simply training people to a higher standard will not bring about better driving, merely people who are trained to pass a higher standard of test. We currently have one of the strictest requirements for testing in the world. There's not a shred of evidence that advanced training works. Currently, those who take the IAM test are those who tend to be more disciplined and safety conscious anyway. It also has the negative effect that IAM test passers consider themselves to be trained and competent at driving at speeds in excess of the road limits. It validates their speeding.
    The only things that are going to have a significant effect are dutch/danish pedestrian and cycling infrastructure and a significant review of penalties for reckless driving and speeding. Perhaps income linked fines? Or at least ones that are more than the cost of a tank of petrol!
    We should also have limitations on maximum vehicle speed and power/weight ratios. Also, Insurance should be limited to third party cover when laws are being broken and have strict liability laws for accidents involving vulnerable road users.
    If insurance had to cover the full costs of accidents (emergency services, A&E as well as current cover) it would reflect the true cost of motoring and there would soon be calls for policies based on black boxes & satnav speed limiters.
    The solutions are easy - except that they have to be implemented by politicians!

  3. There are two factors at play, reducing the congestion and making the roads safer. By making the test harder we can limit the number of new drivers legally allowed onto the roads. (Although this seems to be another example of the baby-boomers making the young generation pay for the b-b's mistakes.) It will also encourage more illegal drivers.

    We could also encourage more efficient use of motor vehicles, with multiple occupancy of vehciles. I drove up the A14 in Cambs on Monday and was amazed how many cars have one person in them. One approach used in Seoul was to allow even number registration plates one day and odd number registration plates the next (on cars).

    The second issue of making the roads safer is affected by congestion and by a driver's skill and attitude. We can make the test harder, but isn't their attitude more important? When teaching my kids to drive (in addition to their driving lessons) you get to see a lot of bad driving on the roads - much of it driven by impatience (imho).

    I would like to see a more "revolutionary" approach taken to the problem. Whilst not everyone can work from home we either need our places of work to be within walking/cycling distance of our homes and well served by direct and prioritised routes. Or we need to be able to work from home - but well connected - not just down a piece of wet string, but with decent broadband multiple screens to create a virtual office.

    Let's face with Peak oil approaching and alternately fuelled cars always some way off we shouldn't just keep on investing in old road systems.

  4. "A free Highway Code mobile phone application is another way standards could be improved."

    Sound like an excuse to use one's mobile while driving.

  5. We need to end the cult of the sacred driving licence.

    No more driving with 12 points or more.

  6. Re peak-oil. What the Bundeswehr think is food for thought:


  7. Thanks all for the comments.
    I'm inclined to agree that increased use of black boxes and loading the full cost of collisions onto insurance is a good way to go.
    I did some IAM study a while back and I do believe it made me a lot more aware of risks and hazards and more knowledgeable about the Highway Code - whether that would work if it were less voluntary in nature is a good question...