Road signs are simple and effective ... at least you would hope so since they've been around since the invention of the dirt road.
The trouble with some road signs is that, like figure-skating judging, they're somewhat subjective, or at least they seem that way. They're the types of signs that provoke intermittent compliance and, in and of themselves, probably cause their own share of crashes, which is ironic since the whole idea of signs is to keep us out of crashes. Let's take a look at some of my favorites:
Well, it doesn't mean stop and it doesn't mean go, so the meaning is somewhere in between and is open to some interpretation. I mean really, if drivers blatantly roll through signs that read "stop," then just how fast are these same people "rolling" through a yield, a sign that doesn't read "stop." Poll your neighbors and it's doubtful that you'll get the same answer twice. Yield means prepare to stop and, of course, definitely stop if someone (including a pedestrian) is crossing your path. So, just to be on the safe side, and to eliminate most human error, why not replace all yield signs with stop signs?
The problem with the "merge" instruction is that many drivers believe it just doesn't apply to them if they're traveling down the freeway. If you're surprised to learn that you actually have to let traffic onto the freeway by either slowing down, speeding up or moving over, you're the reason this sign needs to be changed to something like, "move over or people will drive into you." Of course, the sign would be huge and take too long to read at freeway speeds. On the flip side, "merge" does not mean "stop dead and wait for a hole in the traffic to magically appear." The only way to safely merge is if you're moving at the same speed as surrounding traffic, signaling and moving into the next lane. Screeching to a halt because you don't have the skill to move into traffic, or that you don't know what merge means, or it just seems too darned busy for you to merge, signals one or both of the following problems: The folks in the adjacent lane also have no idea what merge means; and, possibly, you're a hazard and shouldn't be on the road when it's congested. Trying to merge into busy traffic from a dead stop is incredibly dangerous and you run the risk of being rear-ended. The trick to merging is timing: Find an opening and get into it instead of waiting all day for someone to let you in.
SLOWER TRAFFIC KEEP RIGHT
If you travel on busy multilaned highways, you've no doubt come to hate this particular sign. In fact, local government might as well save the metal and posts and put no signs up at all as opposed to the subjective "slower traffic keep right" sign. You know this because the highway is loaded with "left-lane bandits" who obviously don't think they fit the definition of "slower" traffic. I have no data to back up the following claim, but if "slower-traffic-keep-right" signs were all replaced with "keep-right-except-to-pass" signs, traffic congestion wouldn't be nearly the problem it is. We've all been stuck behind someone driving 45 in a 55 zone, driving right beside someone else doing 45, blocking miles of open road.
DIRECTION SIGNS PLACED AFTER A TURNOFF
If you live in a "normal" area, freeway on-ramp and off-ramp signs will give you plenty of warning that you need to turn ... before the turn. I happen to live in an abnormal area where this appears to be at least random and most likely optional. Yes, there are off-ramp signs placed right at the turn or just after it. Why? That's a good question to ask as you blast by at 65 mph with no hope of turning around for the next 100 miles ("No U-turn").
ROUTE NUMBERS ON THE MAP, NAMES ON THE ROAD SIGNS
If you travel in strange cities or you're a strange traveler, this is the kind of thing that will keep you holed up in your hotel room for the duration of your stay. The map says "Route 90," but there isn't a single "Route 90" sign to be seen ... anywhere ... just street signs with the usual names on them. Even more frustrating, if that's possible, is that you're driving down a main thoroughfare with no signs at all to mark it. All the cross streets are clearly marked (but they're almost never lit at night and/or they're so small that you can't read them until you've driven past them). Surely you've been driving along a busy and unfamiliar street only to ask your by-this-time-cranky spouse, "Ummmm, what street are we on, anyway?" It doesn't help that many streets change names as you're driving on them, not that you would ever know it from the lack of signage, so you can hardly be blamed for being lost in the first place.
This sign makes perfect sense, but its use is so random that I don't even pay attention to it. It's used by road crews usually during repairs. But, have you ever slowed down for a "bump" sign only to find hardly any bump at all, and then a block later driver through an unmarked pothole big enough to swallow your entire car?
I'm actually just warming up since there are plenty of signs that just don't make sense. Of course, if you're still puzzled about what "yield" means, the problem might not be the sign at all. There's this new thing called a driver's handbook that spells out what you're supposed to do ...
Send in your sign beefs and we'll use them in a future column.
Rhonda Wheeler is a journalist with Wheelbase Communications, a worldwide supplier of automotive news, features and reviews. You can e-mail her by logging on to www.wheelbase.ws/mailbag.html.