This is not about cycling. It's about signs. Signs affect cyclists; that's a good enough connection for us. Guy Browning has also just published Innervation: Redesign Yourself For A Smarter Future, which is "passionately pro-bike (ish)."

You Talking to Me?
by Guy Browning

Imagine you were married to the highway code. Would that be a relaxed kind of relationship? Would you feel you had room to express yourself, do things your own way? I don't think so. Instead your partner would be giving you a relentless series of orders, directions and information, all telling you what you can, can't, should or could be doing at any given moment. Now imagine the relationship you are currently in had the equivalent of the highway code to govern all aspects of it: there would be round sign above the TV with a mouth crossed out meaning "I don't want to hear your opinions during the news"; on the bathroom door there would be a sign saying "Give Way to Oncoming Adults"; and then you might have a triangular sign on the headboard saying "Remember Foreplay".

Signs are a great way of telling people things they don't know, pretend not to know, forget or simply ignore. However, there is a problem with signs and that is that most of them have been around for so long we're beginning not to notice them, and for a sign that is a fate worse than death.

A word in your eye
Signs with writing on are particularly at risk because language changes a lot faster than pictures. For example GIVE WAY. This phrase is straight out of the era of coaches and horses with an undercurrent of gentle submission. If this sign were at a polite cocktail party it would say SWOON. These days no-one gives way unless they absolutely have to. This sign should therefore be updated to NO WAY. Or just NO.

DUAL CARRIAGEWAY is another designation straight out of the eighteenth century. Americans think it is as quaint as we think their Turnpikes are quaint. We all know what one is but it's very difficult to think of what else it could be called. Double Lane or Big Road? The metatext of DUAL CARRIAGEWAY AHEAD is clearly CHANCE TO OVERTAKE SUNDAY DRIVER AHEAD or FAST LANE AHEAD or END OF FRUSTRATION AHEAD. Sadly, the one thing you can never, ever do with a road sign is give permission, or even imply, that you can go fast.

Even REDUCE SPEED NOW is a bit suspect and sounds like a driving instructor's instruction. This should be updated to SLOW DOWN NOW or, a bit oxymoronically, SLOW DOWN QUICKLY. Perhaps we could have them in sequence: START BRAKING NOW. BRAKE NOW. BRAKE. FOR GOD'S SAKE BRAKE!! In general it's a bit of an unnecessary sign. Telling people to slow down because there's something in their way is getting perilously close to teaching them to suck eggs. You're getting to the point where on the other side of the roundabout you'll have to have signs saying INCREASE SPEED NOW.

Punctuation can also drift pass its sell-by date. One of the most common all-purpose signs is the exclamation mark. This is clearly the same as saying GOSH! It implies that something moderately interesting could happen if you're easily interested. What is needed is ****! or something from Captain Haddock like *#@&! Because that's what we all say when we round a bend at seventy miles an hour and find a modern art installation in the middle of the road.

Signs with more mileage
Road signs have mileages on them which these days is rather misleading. Any signs that says 60 miles to London may give you the impression that you are roughly an hour away from Piccadilly Circus. In fact, given current traffic conditions, you are probably a day and a half away. Instead we should learn from the Tutunkhamen exhibition at the British Museum in the 1970s. Such was the popularity of the exhibition that queues stretched half way round London. Along the queue they had signs which said things like THREE HOURS QUEUING FROM HERE. At least you knew where you were. Signs featuring LONDON 5 HRS would give you a better idea if you were going to make your meeting or not.

Of course using times on signs implies that everyone travels at the same speed, which they don't. Speed signs are virtually ignored by everyone save for the fact that when you pass one you know you probably need to slow down. Speed is dictated by how tight corners are and what damn fool off-duty driving instructor is directly in front of you. There are so many 30 or 40 speed signs around that we notice them as much as we'd notice a street light. For most people 30 means somewhere between 29 and 50. If we had signs that told you precisely what speed was required to the exact mile an hour, you'd have a greater variety of signs and they'd be a lot more noticeable. A 26 sign for example, might have rarity value and you could spot them like you spot Eddie Stobarts. Once you'd registered the figure you'd be more likely to drive at that speed as well.

Interestingly, people slow down for cameras but not for signs. Is it something to do with the fact that people tend to linger when they know they're being filmed? No it isn't. It's more to do with the fact that speed cameras impact on your wallet. If speed signs showed the penalty you'd have to pay for speeding, people would slow down. Especially if the fine came in the form of lashes. The traffic camera sign is actually a masterpiece of the sign makers art. Clearly it looks like the sort of camera that should have a man standing behind it with a black tablecloth over his head. Somehow not only does the sign convey quintessence of camera but it also looks like a camera with attitude -- a camera for the purpose of recording traffic infringements.

One spectacularly useless old sign that needs to be scrapped forthwith is the national speed limit sign. No-one knows what it means and even if they do know that it means the National Speed Limit, they don't actually know what the national speed limit is. To most people, the national speed limit is defined as slightly faster than the complete idiot in front of you and slightly slower than the utter maniac behind you.

Figures and Animals
A lot of signs feature a little man doing things. He's the man that does road works with an upturned umbrella and stands aggressively on toilet doors when he should have his legs crossed. The place where you see this man most is on exit signs where he is running through a door. This sign is actually a little bit naughty as all fire instructions state very clearly that you are not to panic and under no circumstances are you to run. The most dramatic use of the man comes in DANGER OF DEATH where he is hit by a massive electrical charge and falls backward in shock and pain. Great acting.

Sign man, when he's not digging the roads up, has a secret life. On the NO THOROUGHFARE sign the man involved is clearly wearing Cuban heels and some sort of safari jacket. His wrist is also outrageously limp. It would be more appropriate if the sign said NO CAMPING IT UP.

Women only feature on signs if they are mothers with children, old women crossing the road or going to the lavatory (there's a PhD thesis in there somewhere). Women's skirts in signs mostly come from the Sandra Dee school of fashion except in the school sign with the two figures holding hands. The women is clearly wearing a miniskirt. Which leads me on to an important debate: is that the little kid's mum or his sister. My money is on mum because no little boy would ever hold his big sister's hand in public.

Women also feature in student rag mags' annual reinterpretation of highway codes signs with the all time classic of the BUMPY ROAD sign becoming WOMAN WITH LARGE BREASTS AHEAD. The students behind this have clearly never seen a pair of live woman's breasts (and probably can't drive either). By the way why do students feel the need to remove various items of street furniture and take them back to their squalid student squats? Basically it's because they lack the order and direction in their lives which signs give. The student with a traffic cone in their room, and statistics tell us that every fifth student has one (more amongst biochemists), is subliminally saying that their bedroom is a potential health hazard and a place you should avoid.

The second favourite sign for student rag mags is the NO MOTOR VEHICLES sign with the motorcycle stunt man flying over a parked car. When you pass this sign at speed you always imagine that the motorcyclist is wearing a leather helmet with a little visor. In fact he's clearly not wearing a helmet at all. That's because your mind tends to elaborate and decorate signs. Take everyone's favourite sign which we've all had cause to study over long periods, ie the men at work sign. Is he wearing Wellington boots or not?

There is also unthinking discrimination when it comes to animals on signs. Why are the deer and horses running freely and happily with manes flowing but the cow is standing still as if he's waiting to cross a busy dual carriageway? Wouldn't you be a lot more likely to slow down if you thought the cows might be a-running? And perhaps have the sign man running after him. We've currently got signs all over the country for foot and mouth. Why not just swivel those cow signs upside down so they've got their feet in the
air. We'd all know what it meant. In the Isle of Wight they have an exclamation mark sign with RED SQUIRREL under it. What's the thought behind that? Gosh, it's a red squirrel. I thought they were extinct. Thump. They are now.

Just Don't Do It
The best sign on the road is the slippery road sign. This road is so slippery that the wheels of the car have managed to cross over each other. Frightening. Another corker is the quayside sign where a car drives into a river. And who has not passed a falling rock slide and instinctively looked up to check the geological stability of the abutting cliff. The signs for steep hills are dull in comparison and would benefit from a little bit of trompe d'oiel. Why not have the cars on the outsides of the signs edging down their naturally steep sides.

One danger with these danger signs is that they can become too exciting. For example a friend in New South Wales spotted a sign saying SLASHERS AHEAD. They spent half an hour veering all over the road in a terrifying manner trying to spot the slashers. With these really interesting signs you need another sign reminding you to keep your eyes on the road. But then you would have the problem of too much signage and driving past them all would become the equivalent of trying to read a book while driving.

Something that can't be improved on is the simple arrow telling you to go left or right. Just think if we didn't have arrows. How would you quickly tell someone to go left? Perhaps you could have red for left and blue for right and orange for straight ahead, but then a drive to the shops would become a big political statement. Imagine if all arrows were banned for being too phallic and oppressive, how would you show people which way to go. You could have a big hand pointing one way and, if you were going to use hands, you could then have a raised flat hand for Stop, a sloped hand for slow down and two fingers up for a cul-de-sac.

Let's go back to the stunt motorcycle sign for one moment. What that sign is supposed to mean is that cars and motorcycles are forbidden. If you see a horse in circle that means horses are forbidden. If you saw a cigarette in a circle would that mean no smoking? No it wouldnât. If you don't want someone to do something you need to show that thing and then put a slash through it.
If they don't want you to do a U-turn they put a big red line through it. We can live with that. This is the big flaw in the Highway code as currently constituted. If they want you not to do something they should put a slash through it. (That's also why it's always impossible to look cool in a sash because subliminally what you're saying is ignore me.)

A classic example of this is the sign forbidding you to use your horn which is an old style horn in a circle. The reason you don't see these much is because people always used to sound their horn when they saw them. Asking people to refrain from blowing their horn is actually a pretty key sign especially in flighty Latin countries where people use their horn much as we use our gearbox. But what happens when you want to encourage people to blow their horn. Much more difficult. The Japanese attempt could mean anything from ROCK CONCERT AHEAD to DANGER OF DEATH.

Signs on Cars
The big L for Learner driver is a fantastic sign. Spectacularly dangerous learner drivers should be required to put this sign on upside down so that everyone would know that if they can't get the sign up the right way they're not going to have much chance of dealing with a mini-roundabout. There's also a green L sign. This isn't quite as well known and no-one quite knows if it's new driver, or green driver or an unleaded driver. However, there is an opportunity here: let's say you have failed your test eight times. You should be required to drive around with eight L plates on the back of your car. That would certainly alert the neighbourhood.

Learners aren't the only things on board that require signs. Everyone has seen BABY ON BOARD. It's not the baby you need to worry about, it's the parents who are driving on three hours of sleep in the last week. It's probably for their benefit that you have the sign on motorways TIREDNESS CAN KILL TAKE A BREAK. To most new mothers with screaming babies this reads TIREDNESS CAN KILL GET HIM A VASECTOMY. Frequent drivers will have noticed that these Take A Break signs always come before service stations. In the interests of fairness there should be another sign saying FOOD POISONING CAN KILL KEEP DRIVING.

SHOW DOGS IN TRANSIT is tantamount to an invitation to ram the vehicle. It has as much effect on other's driving behaviour as saying EXPENSIVE HANDKERCHIEF IN BOOT PLEASE AVOID MULTIPLE PILE UPS. There is also the strange phenomenon of horse boxes with a sign saying HORSES on the back. What would be more interesting was if they had SHOW FERRETS IN TRANSIT on the back -- that would get people's attention. But the sign we all really want to see is one on the back of a white van saying PILLOCK IN TRANSIT.

Sign writing
Signs are everywhere, not just on the Highway. Near to where I grew up there used to be a squat brick building with an orange sign on it that simply said HAZCHEM. For many years I thought that this was a Yiddish word and that the building had some significance for the Jewish faith. Recently, I realised that the most probable explanation was that the building stored hazardous
chemicals. As a sign it was woefully inadequate and really only served to encourage young people in search of religious enlightenment to break in and then be accidentally dissolved in vats of nitric acid.

Compare this with the sign next to our local electricity substation. DANGER OF DEATH. As I understand it, very few people are killed by climbing into electricity substations thanks to this effective signage. By contrast, most fatal accidents happen in the home where instead of signs saying DANGER OF DEATH there are signs saying WELCOME which clearly is about as responsible as having WELCOME signs in front of electricity substations.

Signs come to life when ordinary people are involved and have to make them up. It's not as easy as it looks. Take this old chestnut. CHILDREN PLEASE DRIVE SLOWLY. We all know what's meant but is there a better way of saying it? DRIVE SLOWLY CHILDREN? CAREFUL CHILDREN DRIVE SLOWLY? How about SLOW DOWN YOU CHILD MURDERERS. That's more like it. Or possibly SPEED UP AND KILL A CHILD.

Someone once said that the definition of writing is grabbing someone's attention long enough to get a thought across. That's also the exact definition of a good sign. Let's face it, the poet laureate would be better employed, and probably happier, writing road signs. They would also have a lot more impact. Take this recent roadside poem: MANURE FOR SALE. NO HAY JUST SHIT. It's a memorable sign but the author seems to have forgotten the fact that the reason people use the word manure is because they don't want to be reminded of the fact that what they're merrily spreading around is actually shit.

The two signs that professional sign makers argue about long into the night are both found in public transport and are both equally important for safety. Anyone who travels regularly on a bus will be aware of the sign PASSENGERS MUST NOT STAND FORWARD OF THIS NOTICE. It's not very clear and you're unlikely to hear a bus driver saying, "Excuse me dear, you've just
stood forward of that notice." Clearly you don't want to say PASSENGERS MUST NOT STAND IN FRONT OF THIS NOTICE either.

Perhaps the solution is in the second half of the notice which says DO NOT DISTRACT THE DRIVER. That really covers it all really. Otherwise you're going to have get rather long winded. TALKING TO THE DRIVER CAUSES PILE UP AND POSSIBLE DEATH OF SHOW DOGS IN TRANSIT. Or bus drivers could use the same techniques as parents and have a sign that says YOU'VE BEEN VERY GOOD. WE'RE NEARLY THERE. JUST SIT QUIETLY.

The big stinker on trains, tubes and trams is OBSTRUCTING THE DOORS CAUSES DELAY AND CAN BE DANGEROUS. In recent years this has been shortened to OBSTRUCTING THE DOORS CAN BE DANGEROUS. But on the outside of the train doors it says PLEASE KEEP CLEAR OF THE DOORS.

This highlights the essential schizophrenia of signage. Are you giving people orders because they are too stupid to work things out for themselves or are you informing people of the possible consequence of their actions and then allowing them to make an informed choice? Consider the two different approaches on building sites; CHILDREN MUST NOT PLAY ON THIS SITE is an order; PARENTS ARE ADVISED TO WARN CHILDREN OF THE DANGERS OF ENTERING THIS SITE is more of a government health warning. Which brings me nicely to smoking. If you don't want people to smoke you put up a sign saying NO SMOKING. The government says it doesn't want people to smoke but they don't have signs saying NO SMOKING on Cigarette packets. If they did this would dramatically reduce smoking as every time you bought a packet you'd be in a non-smoking area.

My favourite signs
Some humorous magazines rely almost entirely for their humour on readers' willingness to travel abroad and take pictures of shops called Arselik and remote railway stations called Thatmansa Wannaker. Sadly, there are international conventions regarding road signs so that you always pretty much know what's going on wherever you are in the world. This leads to interesting anomalies like the sign for a service station in China with eating facilities featuring a knife and fork much like our own which is slightly strange because they don't use knives and forks over there. (Unless they're just provided at motorway service stations). Interestingly our sign for a motorway looks like a pair of chopsticks resting on their little stand.

Currently I have three favourite signs: the first is at my local folly which is a cross between a church tower and a chimney. On the bottom there is a sign saying. PERSONS WISHING TO COMMIT SUICIDE BY JUMPING FROM THE TOWER DO SO AT THEIR OWN RISK. My second is DRY RISER. I've no idea what this means but I've always imagined it was to warn you of somebody with a sense of humour so dry that no-one notices when they are being funny except themselves. Thirdly, there is often a small sign on posh boats that prohibits golf shoes on deck. How many people play golf and then get straight on a boat? Not many, but those who do are fantastically unpopular. Check your local golf club for signs forbidding the wearing of oilskins.

Finally, there is one pert unambiguous little motorway sign that everyone loves and that is the one saying END at the beginning of road works. Everyone likes it because it is in fact the START of a new and better life where traffic flows freely, tiredness is not a killer, the carriageway recovers its duality and your dryness starts to rise.


© Guy Browning
The Guardian, June 9, 2001

other stories by G Browning