All Signs Point to Confusion

By Roger K. Lewis
Saturday, August 2, 2008

Do you ever think about how much we depend on highway signs? They tell us where we are; provide essential direction and destination options; and display critical rules about driving, stopping or parking.

Too often, though, they are hard to see, tough to read and even misleading.

How difficult is it to design, install and maintain signs that reliably help safe travel and fail-safe navigation?

Good signs can be indispensable. In ever-more-complex, unfathomable networks of highways and ramps, such as the Springfield Interchange, where Interstate 495 meets Interstate 95, drivers must depend on and follow signs to make their way through.

Drive around metropolitan Washington, and you will find recurring annoying sign problems.

· Excessive information. Think about scary moments when, barreling along at highway speed, you rapidly close in on a large sign or cluster of signs with only seconds to read and act. Daunting arrays of words, numbers and arrows are far too common, and their effectiveness invariably depends on a driver's ability to concentrate and multi-task.

· Inadequate information. Equally annoying are signs that provide too little information. You can't tell quickly where you are and what you should do at the upcoming decision point. Even worse is not finding a sign where you need one.

· Confusing information. Too many highway signs are vague or ambiguous. Contributing to confusion are the many similar alphanumeric identifiers -- for example, interstates 295, 395 and 495 or exits 22, 22A and 22B. The geographic destinations can be confusing, too. Local destinations may be meaningless to interstate travelers unfamiliar with the region. And why are compass headings -- north, south, east, west -- sometimes included on signs and sometimes not?

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