Thoughts on road signs

By The Helpful Engineer / On / In Infrastructure

Road closed - snow
Road closed – snow

Following on from our last post about road signs, I came across this ‘road closed’ sign in the Wicklow Mountains today. The sign seems to indicate that the road ahead is closed due to snow and ice. But the tyre tracks in the snow seem to indicate that the road is not closed and that the majority of drivers were ignoring the sign and driving on regardless. I talked with one driver coming the other way and he said the road wasn’t closed further along. I of course, being the good careful citizen, turned around. But there are a number of points to make about this.

Firstly if the road is really closed, why not put a barrier in place, along with a sign. There were no houses after this sign as it was placed at the last property entrance before the Sally Gap. As a sign could easily be missed in poor visibility, covered with snow or just ignored; a physical barrier would force the issue. I remember being in the USA some time ago and the local beach was closed because of storm waves; a hurricane had passed close by. The police blocked the beach entrances with barriers and manned them to ensure nobody tried to ignore the barrier or the warnings. Surely that is the way to close a road or entrance.

Secondly the sign should have been placed a long distance before it had been. It should have been located at the previous junction so that drivers had a choice of an alternative route instead of having to do a u-turn and then driving back the way they came which is pointless especially on icy roads.

Finally I think this sign will be forgotten about and left in place and will just confuse future drivers. This happens a lot with the ‘road flooded’ signs that are erected after heavy rain. I have very rarely actually encountered a flooded road after seeing a ‘road flooded’ warning sign. Usually this is because by the time the signs have been erected the flood is easing and then the sign is just left in place and forgotten about.  This has serious implications, because if warning signs are left in place after the incident has passed, drivers will learn to ignore the signs and take less care which will cause problems if there is a real problem.

Dynamic signs. Dynamic signs are one answer to this problem. These are digital signs that can be turned on and off or can be set on a timer. Instead of having a permanent sign outside a school warning that children are crossing, even when the school is closed. The dynamic warning sign can be turned on only when the children are actually going to the school. I believe this is used in France already and it would be one answer to the road blocked by snow above.

Less is more. It is worth pointing out that there is a popular school of thought in traffic engineering that suggests that if all road signs were removed drivers would tend to be more careful and instead would would slow down and concentrate on the road ahead. The leading proponent of this was Hans Monderman (b. 1945- d. 2008) who introduced the concept of shared spaces into Dutch towns. These ultimately reduced traffic speeds and accidents and have been copied elsewhere with success. Some of these ideas were tried in Irish towns like Howth, County Dublin. There the road along the harbour front was narrowed to increase the driver’s perception of speed and excess signs removed. It seems to have been a success.

The vision that Monderman had for future of road traffic is discussed at length in the book ‘Traffic’ by Tom Vanderbilt. It is well worth a read. It goes into much detail about driver psychology and backs it up with findings from various experiments and reports. My favourite experiment was the one found that drivers drove closer to cyclists, when passing them, if the cyclist was wearing a helmet and other protective gear. This seems to be because subconsciously, the driver sees the cyclist with the helmet as being better protected and thinks that less care is required. So counter intuitively the cyclist may be putting themselves at more risk if they wear protective clothing.

Be careful out there and don’t just rely on the traffic signs.



2 thoughts on “Thoughts on road signs

  1. It’s not so much about the actual sign, but the evidence of an effort by the council to have done their bit so mitigate responsibility if something was to go wrong.

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