Suppose you are trapped in traffic on Route 50. Like thousands of other returning beachgoers, you're feeling tired, impatient and mean, and you've probably begun to wish you could push some magic button or snap your fingers and instantly be transported home. Instead, you see an official sign ahead, blinking a digital message.
"Eight Miles to Bay Bridge," it twinkles. "Nice Tan."
Would that pick up your spirits?
Perhaps not. The State of Maryland is still gamely attempting to strike a friendly, conversational tone in the five new signs it has recently erected on that dreaded Eastern Shore beach route. The signs, concentrated in the congested Kent Island area, seek to acknowledge the aggravation while encouraging fretful westbound motorists to lighten up. Four miles beyond the tan compliment -- a distance covered in about 22 minutes on a typical summer Sunday afternoon -- another sign appears in the median. "Only Four Miles to Bay Bridge," it blinks cheerfully, "2,957 Miles to Sacramento."
Are you smiling yet?
"It only makes me feel worse," said Lanny Davis, a Montgomery County lawyer and political activist who owns a condominium on Fenwick Island, Del., and often finds himself stuck in Sunday traffic. "It makes me wish I was in Sacramento instead of sitting on Route 50."
On any summer Sunday, about 80,000 motorists return home via the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, traffic backups can stretch for 15 miles, and a three-hour trip from the beaches to the Capital Beltway can expand into 6 1/2 painful hours.
Given such odds, it's unlikely that anything could improve the humor of travelers. But state officials say the lighthearted approach may reduce the grumbling, at least until the road projects are finished and a new six-lane bridge at Kent Narrows is open next year. The old one, a drawbridge, is raised every hour, halting traffic as boats pass underneath.
The signs, a part of the state's "Reach the Beach" program, were conceived shortly after Memorial Day, when officials with several state agencies met "to put our thinking caps on," said Muffet Robinson, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Transportation. "We said: 'Let's put some levity in here. Let's get clever.' "
They took their lead from Gov. William Donald Schaefer, who recently declared that the state's traffic signs are too bureaucratic and urged officials to come up with messages that "touch people on a personal level," said Russ Ulrich, of the State Highway Administration.
The result is already evident along the Beltway near Bethesda and on Route 50 in Annapolis, where travelers nearing construction areas are warned to "Prepare for Sudden Aggravation." Other new signs include "Pardon Our Progress" and "Thanks for Bearing with Us."
Besides the flattery and the mileage to California -- Sacramento marks the western end of Route 50 -- the signs along the beach route also supply information about accidents ahead, traffic backups, alternative routes and other information. There are also signs that give telephone numbers to call in a case of traffic congestion -- but no advice on what to do if you don't happen to have a phone in your car.
Said Ulrich about the friendlier signs: "It's just a way to bring a smile to people's lips. They appreciate that we're acknowledging that they're out there. We're just showing a little empathy for their trials and tribulations."