Signs of Safety
In 1970, the average car didn't have many safety features. No anti-lock brakes, no airbags, no steel-belted radial tires. Some cars even lacked seat belts. But your car's AM radio accurately predicted the future of driving.
"Sign, sign, everywhere a sign, blockin' out the scenery, breakin' my mind," sang the Five Man Electrical Band that year. (They dropped their g's as President Obama often does.) "Do this, don't do that, can't you read the sign." They didn't know the half of it.
In the decades since, driving has become much safer. Despite the fact that we have more cars driving more miles, road deaths have plunged more than 40 percent since 1972. Yet, even as the roads have become safer, they've also become more crowded. With signs.
Driving through rural Pennsylvania last year, I saw a sign that said "Buckle up, next 1 million miles." Ha, ha. A few miles later -- much fewer than a million -- the sign appeared again. And, soon, again. Blockin' out the scenery, for no good purpose. Seat belt use last year reached 87 percent, the federal government reports. The handful of holdouts aren't likely to be swayed by signs, no matter how humorous.
More recently, driving down a highway in rural New York state, a sign announced "Emergency Dial 911." Now, 911 coverage may be a rather new development in some places. But if you're not aware how it works, you probably need more help than a sign in the middle of nowhere.
These signs are merely annoying. But the spread of road signs is often driven by a government's attempt to keep people "safe." Decades ago, a local resident rolled through a "yield" sign in my parent's small town, causing an accident. The yield was immediately replaced with a "stop" sign, although few actually come to a complete halt. And they shouldn't have to; the sightlines are good at the intersection. Yielding should be enough. Putting up a stop sign that most everyone simply ignores only ends up undermining the rule of law.
And there are other bad outcomes related to oversignage.
"Attending to a sign competes with attending to the road. The more you look for signs, for police, and at your speedometer, the less attentive you will be to traffic conditions," as John Staddon wrote in The Atlantic a few years ago. "When you've trained people to drive according to the signs, you need to keep adding more signs to tell them exactly when and in what fashion they need to adjust their behavior. Otherwise, drivers may see no reason why they should slow down on a curve in the rain."
Staddon urges governments to advise us less, which would force us to pay more attention to road conditions. Columnist Mark Steyn agrees. When driving in Europe, "I quickly appreciate being on a country lane and able to see the country, as opposed to admiring rural America's unending procession" of signs, he writes.
But don't hold your breath waiting for the proliferation of signs to abate. Once governments start focusing resources on a problem, they seldom stop. Even if the problem itself -- such as seat-belt use -- is principally solved, governments just pour more resources into the project. And that's a shame.
"Paradoxically, almost every new sign put up in the U.S. probably makes drivers a little safer on the stretch of road it guards. But collectively, the forests of signs along American roadways, and the multitude of rules to look out for, are quite deadly," Staddon writes.
Perhaps more importantly, Americans are steadily ceding more of our liberties to governments, which, after all, are simply promising to watch out for our "safety." That's not likely to end well, and in fact is already going poorly.
A friend who works in health care in upstate New York says more than half her patients are on welfare, Medicare, or Medicaid. The government is looking out for them, supposedly. But, for state governments at least, money doesn't grow on trees. Somebody has to pay the taxes that pay for all that help, just as somebody has to pay the taxes that pay for all those road signs instructing us to fasten seat belts or dial 911.
In the long run we'd be safer, on the roads and in our lives, if the government was doing less to look out for us.
Rich Tucker is a writer living in Northern Virginia. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.