For years road signs have proliferated and have now reached a ludicrous extent. This Tuesday morning, as a passenger on the way to Heathrow, I counted the number of signs in view as we went through various roadworks. At many points, more than ten signs were in our field of vision. No one can read that much on the road. Experiments in towns have shown that removing signs can improve road safety.
In the late 1950s, the pictorial pan-European signs were developed and designed for British motorways by the Anderson Committee. They first appeared on the Preston By-Pass, our first motorway, in 1958. They were a brilliant design job and should have been left as they were. Colour coding was fixed (blue for motorways, brown for entertainment and leisure, green for A roads, white for minor routes, red for warnings, hospitals, railway stations). The fonts were fixed at two.
But increasingly, the signs are being surrounded by text, and wordy text at that. As an English Language Teaching author, I’d argue the transparency of some signs to foreign drivers. How about English for Truckers?
I wondered about the Lithuanian truck in front of me and whether the driver understood WIDE LOADS STRADDLE TWO NEARSIDE LANES. “To straddle” wouldn’t come in to many language textbooks. What about the lane markings with NARROW LANES ANY VEH. Have you ever driven a veh? HARD SHOULDER is a weird name for what most think of as the “Breakdown lane” to. LAY-BY is not obvious either. How about ROAD LIABLE TO FOG? I saw that on one day, and on the next (A35), AREA PRONE TO FOG, Is that a different thing? Shouldn’t these signs be standard? How many foreign drivers understand LIABLE TO or PRONE TO? A mile or so past AREA PRONE TO FOG you have a series of HIDDEN DIPS notices.
MERGE IN TURN is not a phrase taught to English learners … though I’d add it lacks transparency on a cultural basis to many foreign drivers, who lack the intrinsic turn taking concept. I was terrified recently by a Spanish truck in a single lane section through motorway roadworks with AVERAGE SPEED CHECK 50 MPH. I was doing a steady 54 mph (just below the 10% you can allegedly get away with), as were the twenty vehs in front of me. The truck behind wasn’t having it. First he tailgated so close I couldn’t see his front window or bumper, then he put his lights on full beam, then he held down an air horn. I couldn’t move over to let him pass. What would speeding up do, except me tailgating the veh in front, which had nineteen others evenly spaced in front of it? And AVERAGE SPEED CHECK videos you entering and leaving the section. it’s automatic. They mean it. Mr Gonzalez behind me clearly didn’t give a toss. He also appeared to be a homicidal maniac. CURB YOUR SPEED would founder because I’d bet he doesn’t know “to curb.”
Why is TRAFFIC CALMING MEASURES better than a symbol with speed bumps and (say) SPEED BUMPS?
Take this example of a wordy, confusing sign. It’s somewhat hard to read unless you have stopped, but it’s also non-standard. It means that when you arrive at the traffic light, you wait at the first line, leaving the red painted area in front of you for bikes, who will wobble away filling the road when the lights change. This one’s in Taunton. There used to be an identical one in Poole, near my house. It was at the top of the hill, where the side road met a main road at an angle. The hill meant the bikes pulled away so slowly that the light changed before you’d crossed it. Much more dangerously, it meant that you couldn’t see traffic on the main road because you were a car length back from the junction. We discovered how dangerous one bright sunny day with the sun shining right at us. No bikes in front. Lights changed, we pulled away only to stop JUST in time before being swept to oblivion by a police car that had jumped its red light on the main road at high speed with lights, but no siren. We couldn’t see the lights because of the angle. The sign has gone.
Europe in general prefers speedometer dials. Digital speedometers are not popular. So why tell people to drive at 4 mph? It used to be that speedometers went 0-80, but now even the humblest car sticks on a dial with 0-160 (so they needn’t change them for the twin-turbo boy racer model). So how do you see 4 mph? Mine goes in increments of 10 mph. 5 mph makes a tad more sense, but even better is just a blue sign with pedestrians and STOP!
In Britain, you are not allowed to advertise along the motorways, and have never been allowed to do so. The main roads used to be free of distracting verbiage. Then they put in electric information signs. Very useful they are too, when they say M3 CLOSED J8 to J9. They could be improved. On the M27 today it said A35 CLOSED AFTER A3066. Wonderful. But I do not memorize road numbers so I don’t have a clue where the A3066 is. Unusually the next sign gave useful information … A35 CLOSED (BRIDPORT). Ah, I know where Bridport is. So I needn’t worry about the A3066 any more. I’m not going that far. On which, they love Junction numbers. I have met sales reps and pub bores who pepper their conversation with I was motoring along between Junction 4A and Junction 3, when … but normal human beings don’t retain this stuff. Nor does my SatNav have Junction numbers and nor do the maps in my iPhone … a failing in both cases. They should.
But they can’t leave it at that. if there is no information they remind you to fasten your seatbelts, don’t drink and drive, don’t use mobile phones, and that tiredness kills. But so does distracting the driver’s vision. It’s all reasonable advice but it has no place on warning and information signs. People slow slightly to read them, thinking it may be advice relevant to their journey. it isn’t. It’s just words. What point is there to HAVE A SAFE JOURNEY? Bournemouth spent £250,000 on a blue lighted sign on a bridge saying WELCOME TO BOURNEMOUTH on one side, and SAFE JOURNEY on the other.
Even worse is that the people who switch on and switch off the information signs wander off for coffee or go home without amending them. One Saturday morning we went past four signs telling us the M3 motorway ahead was closed. I trusted my Sat Nav, which can be foolish, but this time the Sat Nav was right and the electric signs were wrong. It was open. Another time, driving in convoy with my son to Legoland at Windsor, the sign said “M3 CLOSED.” My Sat Nav agreed. So I diverted to the “old road” and after many traffic lights and roundabouts, I arrived at Legoland an hour later to find my son, who has no Sat Nav, had been waiting for me for 30 minutes having driven along a perfectly clear motorway.
Smart motorway – M42. You can use the HARD SHOULDER (aka Breakdown lane) when the sign is lit, but only if you are leaving at Jct (JUNCTION) 4.
The current M3 roadworks are designed to turn it into a smart motorway … which means that the breakdown lane (sorry, HARD SHOULDER) can become a fourth motorway lane at peak periods. The same system operates on the M42. It obviously confuses many drivers. As the work is taking two years anyway, they should have simply bitten the bullet and put in some proper four lane sections. I’d prefer a thicker motorway to a smarter one. In fact, the best solution is to build a different motorway to siphon off traffic. If you want to drive from Poole to Dover, a straight line due east along the south coast, the quickest way is to drive north-east to the M25 London ring motorway, then drive back down south-east to Dover. If the A27 south coast road went right through to Dover as dual carriageway, the M3 load would be lightened, especially of heavy trucks as the trucks prefer an extra 40 miles on motorway to wending their way along the coast.
So given two years of roadworks they have decided to enliven the routes across Britain with pinky-orange signs … quite close to the red that drivers associate with DANGER, but not quite there. What is this useful information?
WE OFTEN WORK HERE AT NIGHT
(Oh, if only you usually did so … you might eventually finish)
YOU MAY NOT ALWAYS SEE US
(Yes, because you cone off miles with no workers in sight!)
BUILDING A RELIABLE SAFE M3
(Really? I thought it was a traffic cone collectors’ convention)
NO ONE LIKES A TAILGATER
(I don’t. You are social pariahs)
BROKEN DOWN DON’T DIY
(Don’t DIY … Do It Yourself. Somewhat superfluous next to an official standard yellow sign, picturing a breakdown truck with the words FREE RECOVERY AWAIT RESCUE … and what ELT textbook has the poetic AWAIT rather than WAIT FOR?)
BROKEN DOWN? WE’LL COME TO YOU
(Why do you need two signs saying the same thing?)
LET’S ALL GET HOME SAFELY
(Amen. Take away these silly signs and more of us might)
SOMEONE LOVES YOU. DRIVE WITH CARE
END OF OUR WORK ZONE
Then there’s the really controversial one, aimed at protecting roadworkers (or PEDESTRIANS IN ROAD or WORKFORCE IN ROAD as they are known). It said OUR DAD WORKS HERE. This was held to be sexist. The one on the M3 last week was changed to BE ALERT! OUR MUM WORKS HERE a statement which seems highly unlikely.
The rule has to be “Eliminate all non-essential information.” The world looks better, even in roadworks and really, it IS safer.