Too Many Signs

TOO MANY SIGNS….In the Atlantic, John Staddon argues that the U.S. has too many traffic signs and tries to control driver behavior too strictly. I’ve read about this before, and up to a point it seems like it makes sense. Does the main loop in my neighborhood really need stop signs every 200 yards? (Answer: no, dammit!) Do British style roundabouts work better than traffic lights? (Probably.) And this:

Speed limits in the U.K. are also simpler and better. They are set by road type, so drivers know what limits to expect on highways, rural roads, and urban roads — usually without any signs to tell them. These limits are relatively high, set assuming optimum driving conditions, in contrast to the U.S. limits, which seem to be set with something in between the best and worst conditions in mind. (Precisely where on this spectrum U.S. limits fall seems to vary from road to road, engendering mistrust of the signs in some drivers.) Nonstandard speed limits in the U.K. are rare, so you tend to take them quite seriously when they appear, and they are posted frequently — so you don’t risk missing them if you’re, say, watching the road ahead of you.

OK, I’ll buy this. But as someone who just got back from a driving trip around England, let me add a couple of things. First, it wouldn’t kill them to occasionally throw up a speed limit sign for the benefit of tourists who don’t already know the rules for each specific kind of road. Second, the Brits might not have as many stop signs and speed limit signs as us, but what they do have is an insane blizzard of signs informing you that a speed camera is watching you. I never actually saw one of these cameras (they must be artfully hidden), but the signs were plastered over every road in the country.

And as long as I’m venting a bit here, what is it with Europeans and compass points? Their road signs tend to be gloriously well designed and easy to decipher, but they never include the words north, south, east, or west. So when you get to a crossroad, all the sign tells you is that one direction takes you to, say, Chard, and the other direction takes you to Axminster. Unless you’ve memorized the map, or happen to be a local who doesn’t really need the sign in the first place, you don’t know which direction to go. (If you’re lucky, one of the cities on the sign is the one you want to go to, which makes things easy. Usually it’s not.) But although I might not know every town and village in the area, I always know from a quick look at a map which general direction I want to go. So why not add the words north and south here? Some sort of EU-wide directive to banish directional notation, or what?

On a more positive note, villages in Britain also have seemingly random obstructions placed in the middle of the streets occasionally, and I was charmed to find out that these weren’t, in fact, random obstructions designed to catch you unaware, but were actually carefully placed “traffic calming” schemes. Nice name! Still, it just goes to show that driving in the UK isn’t quite as free and easy as Staddon suggests.