In Praise of Doing Nothing

“A West-End London Street Scene” by Grace Golden

He may not be a household name in most countries, but Hans Monderman is arguably the world’s best-known traffic engineer, a man who solved age-old traffic problems in counter-intuitive ways.

Monderman hated traffic signs. Where many of his peers saw signs as the foundations of safe roads, Monderman saw distraction, confusion and mollycoddling. To him, the road was dumbing down and taking drivers with it: treat a driver like a sign-dependent idiot and he’ll oblige by driving like a gibbering moron.

One day, Monderman was hired to reduce the speed of traffic through the Dutch village of Oudehaske. He didn’t have the budget for traditional traffic-calming measures like speed bumps, and even if he had, he wouldn’t have bothered with them due to drivers’ tendency to increase driving speed between bumps to make up for lost time.

What Monderman did was simple: he didn’t build, he took away. He reduced the height of curbs, took away signs, made the roads seem narrower and gave the road more of a village-like feel to make pedestrians and drivers feel closer to each other.

Convinced his simplistic approach must have been a mistake, he went out one day to measure the speed of passing cars, hoping for at least a 10% drop in speed. Monderman was shocked: his measures had been so successful that the speed had dropped too low to measure on the radar gun

Monderman had replaced fake clarity with real confusion, forcing drivers to slow down, think and solve the problem of traffic accidents by themselves. He’d undone years of traffic engineering work that had separated drivers and pedestrians, work that had created an illusion of safety that proved dangerous.

If the village had been left alone in the first place, not covered in high-performance road surfacing and surrounded by metal, it would have been far safer. Monderman just undid someone else’s misguided work.

More is generally more, to contradict the cliché, but it isn’t intrinsically a good thing.

Before the days of MRI scans, doctors didn’t know much about back pain. But they did know one thing: how to fix it. Within seven weeks, 90% of patients who were prescribed bed rest recovered.

When doctors then had the technology to see the damage on people’s backs, they used it to diagnose problems. More information is good for doctors; MRI scans allowed them to see the back in amazing detail. Why wouldn’t doctors use this expensive solution? The only problem was understanding what all that extra detail actually meant and what to do with it.

In a now infamous study in The New England Journal of Medicine, MRI scans were performed on people with no back problems, which were sent to doctors who were unaware of the ruse. Some 90% of perfectly healthy patients were diagnosed with disc degeneration.

As How We Decide author, Jonah Lehrer, put it simply: “Medical experts are now encouraging doctors not to order MRIs when diagnosing back pain.” Doctors are back where they started.

When we think we have an answer, we stop looking for a solution. And that can cause more problems than admitting we’re clueless or acknowledging that our current answer isn’t perfect.

It can be difficult to change our route once our destination has been decided. When we see data that proves speed bumps aren’t effective but want them to make roads safer, we build more speed bumps anyway.

If we think more information should be needed to solve a complex problem, we waste time and money compiling as much information as possible. Simple solutions can seem inappropriate for complicated problems. Doing nothing isn’t an option.

But doing something isn’t always the best way to solve a problem.

Sometimes, we should just do nothing. This urge to be seen to be doing something rather than actually fixing the problem isn’t just frustrating, it’s counterproductive, expensive and dangerous. TC mark

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