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Road safety: hazardous to your health?

Danger lurks on the road, for sure; but it may not be where we think it is.

Stop signs, for instance, can lead to bad crashes. But a curvy, cliff-side road with no guardrails may have few mishaps.

Why is that? Buckle up as we take an insider's look at road dangers, inspired by author Tom Vanderbilt's new book, "Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us)."

This is no surprise: Intersections are crash magnets. Half of all crashes happen there, including one of the deadliest -- the broadside.

How do you cut crashes at intersections? Stop signs and traffic signals are the all-American way.

But they're not a guaranteed defense. Plenty of drivers simply don't obey them.

Most of us assume a green light makes it safe to go through an intersection. So we fail to look both ways before entering. It can be a fatal mistake.

When cities switch from stop signs to traffic circles and roundabouts, drivers get upset and complain, but studies show that crashes drop, Vanderbilt writes.

Traffic circles eliminate the riskiest thing drivers do in intersections -- cross in front of oncoming traffic.

They also create a psychological trick: With cars mixing in from different directions, the circles heighten the sense of risk, as does the lack of a guardrail on a curvy mountain road.

Drivers react by going slower, steering more carefully and staying more focused on what's going on around them.

(This doesn't account for drivers who think circles are their personal Le Mans race course.)

An upside to crashing?

A small collision isn't completely bad, especially for a too-confident driver who may mistakenly feel invulnerable. No one's advocating going out and smacking into anything. But traffic engineer Hans Monderman was delighted when his son had a minor mishap: "I think these small accidents help in avoiding severe accidents."

Monderman and others in Europe are known for counterintuitive ideas on safe streets, such as removing all the so-called safety devices: signals, stop signs, street striping, warning signs.

What happened? Drivers started thinking for themselves. They acted responsibly and had fewer crashes.

Monderman sounds like a wild and crazy guy. He famously turned one busy intersection in a town center into a mixing ground of cars, bikes and pedestrians.

No stops. No rules.

But there was hidden order amid the seeming chaos.

Monderman had an interesting way of showing it to visitors: He'd walk backward, eyes closed, through the intersection as cars steered calmly around him.

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