Highway Signs: All That Traffic Allows
Highway Sign Readability
Typical American Traffic
Traffic in Sao Paulo, Brazil
You are driving down an unfamiliar stretch of highway trying to stay alert for any clue that might help to direct you to the turn, or exit, you should take to reach your destination; perhaps it's the home of a friend you once promised to visit someday, or maybe it's a shop you've heard that forges custom-built golf clubs at reasonable prices.
Suddenly the sky is obliterated by an array of overhead signs indicating turnoffs left and right for any number of unfamiliar streets, business centers or towns. You wonder, "Should I turn here?"
You decide you'd better keep going straight, hoping you'll come upon something more enlightening.
You decide to lighten up on the gas pedal, just in case; you don't like the cars and trucks that keep tailgating you, but you'd rather not miss your turnoff.
Here comes an exit that could be the one you're looking for, but the last sign you passed down the road was inexplicable to you. So you opt to keep going.
Oops! Missed the Exit!
But, alas, just as you've committed yourself to pass the exit there appears a sign that makes sense.
That exit you just whizzed by was the one you wanted!
Why couldn't the people who put up that sign place it before the exit so you would know in time that it was your exit?
Does this story have a familiar ring to it?
For me, it's just one of scores of disturbing experiences I've had over the years.
In fact, the most common highway sign I see is not a road sign at all, but, rather, a sign of potential highway disasters.
Accidents Waiting to Happen
Some of these represent accidents waiting to happen, for example:
* * * The badly engineered section of road that takes you southbound from the Route 7 Expressway (in Norwalk, Conn.) to I-95 (where I personally saw a motorcyclist's leather-clad body near the turnpike's median divider after he obviously failed to negotiate the decreasing-radius turn.)
* * * The ill-advised, dangerous practice of broken white lines to indicate passing zones. These zones are a menace across the country where people unfamiliar with the area combine lack of local knowledge with poor judgment and try to pass when they shouldn't. Young people certainly are nimble in handling a car, but, if I remember correctly, are a lot more willing than mature adults to take a chance. The wrong decision here can be fatal!
There are untold stories that could be told about poorly written (and poorly placed) signs.
Personally, I'd favor a federal law that would mandate that any town, city or state or other body planning to put up a highway sign be required to have an out-of-towner or out-of-stater decide what a traffic sign should say and where it should be placed.
Only half in jest, I've often told the two friends I have left that there is a good reason highways are poorly designed and road signs, too often, are a disaster: Thousands, perhaps millions, of young people in the country tell their parents or teachers they'd like to (become engineers and) build skyscrapers, underwater tunnels or world-class bridges.
But, have you ever heard of a youngster whose goal in life is to be a traffic engineer?
I wrote this column as a "My View" for The Hour newspaper of Norwalk, Conn., on Jan. 22, 1994. The poor engineering of highways and the careless placement of traffic signs hasn't been improved one iota since then.