Thursday, January 6, 2011

The Signs they are a-Changing

Norman Baker is in the news talking about the review of traffic signs. In a nutshell, the DfT wants to reduce the number of road signs, simplify them and make them clearer.

Why do we have so many road signs and why are they so complex?

Firstly, when there were few cars, people used to drive where they liked. As car ownership grew, traffic problems started to grow, and it was clear that you couldn't manage the free flow of traffic without restrictions, and clearly you needed road signs to inform drivers of the restrictions. Today, road signs are required by law for any restriction (such as no-entry or one-way) to be enforceable. The existing legislation is very prescriptive about exactly what signs are required where and how big they need to be, which results both in a proliferation of signs and makes it possible for motorists to wriggle out of penalty notices if the local authority hasn't followed the legislation to the letter.

Secondly, there are some very complex signs governing bus lanes and parking. When there were few cars, people parked where they liked. As more people started to own cars, streets got full of parked cars, resulting in obstructions, residents being unable to park near their houses. So resident's permits were introduced, which led to problems with visitors who couldn't park. So this led to exceptions. Shopkeepers wanted people to be able to park nearby, but didn't want commuters or residents blocking the spaces all day, which led to time restrictions. With bus lanes, politicians have seen fit to restrict the hours of operation and increase the types of exempt vehicle so that the typical London bus lane will have two periods of operation and four types of vehicle allowed in it. Trying to get all that information onto a sign that is readable and understandable by a driver at 30MPH is pretty much impossible.

In a nutshell, the reason we have a mess of complex roadsigns is simple: too many cars. That, and politicians' trying to keep as much freedom and convenience as possible for drivers (and usually not cyclists or pedestrians) whilst trying to stop drivers doing inconsiderate and idiotic things. Road signs are like the tax system: if it's too simple it becomes unfair or a free-for-all; if it's too complex, it's difficult to understand and easy to exploit.

Of course, there are some cases where local authorities have done silly things, and cases where signage can be simplified. But in general, signs are there to give pretty fine-grained control over who can do what, so if you simplify and remove signs beyond a certain level, you simply bring back the problems that the signs were there to solve, problems whose root cause is too many cars. The disease is not "sign fever", it's "car addiction". It's a good job the Coalition aren't doctors: if you went to the surgery with measles, you'd get a prescription for a spray tan.

It would be nice if this review of road signage included some benefits for cyclists. Such as making cyclists exempt from most no-entry and one-way restrictions, making most bus lanes 24-hour, and stopping parking in cycle lanes. LCC and CTC should be pressuring Norman Baker to make this happen; however I've not noticed much noise being made.

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