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Tilting at Windmills

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June 12, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

TOO MANY SIGNS....In the Atlantic, John Staddon argues that the U.S. has too many traffic signs and tries to control driver behavior too strictly. I've read about this before, and up to a point it seems like it makes sense. Does the main loop in my neighborhood really need stop signs every 200 yards? (Answer: no, dammit!) Do British style roundabouts work better than traffic lights? (Probably.) And this:

Speed limits in the U.K. are also simpler and better. They are set by road type, so drivers know what limits to expect on highways, rural roads, and urban roads — usually without any signs to tell them. These limits are relatively high, set assuming optimum driving conditions, in contrast to the U.S. limits, which seem to be set with something in between the best and worst conditions in mind. (Precisely where on this spectrum U.S. limits fall seems to vary from road to road, engendering mistrust of the signs in some drivers.) Nonstandard speed limits in the U.K. are rare, so you tend to take them quite seriously when they appear, and they are posted frequently — so you don't risk missing them if you're, say, watching the road ahead of you.

OK, I'll buy this. But as someone who just got back from a driving trip around England, let me add a couple of things. First, it wouldn't kill them to occasionally throw up a speed limit sign for the benefit of tourists who don't already know the rules for each specific kind of road. Second, the Brits might not have as many stop signs and speed limit signs as us, but what they do have is an insane blizzard of signs informing you that a speed camera is watching you. I never actually saw one of these cameras (they must be artfully hidden), but the signs were plastered over every road in the country.

And as long as I'm venting a bit here, what is it with Europeans and compass points? Their road signs tend to be gloriously well designed and easy to decipher, but they never include the words north, south, east, or west. So when you get to a crossroad, all the sign tells you is that one direction takes you to, say, Chard, and the other direction takes you to Axminster. Unless you've memorized the map, or happen to be a local who doesn't really need the sign in the first place, you don't know which direction to go. (If you're lucky, one of the cities on the sign is the one you want to go to, which makes things easy. Usually it's not.) But although I might not know every town and village in the area, I always know from a quick look at a map which general direction I want to go. So why not add the words north and south here? Some sort of EU-wide directive to banish directional notation, or what?

On a more positive note, villages in Britain also have seemingly random obstructions placed in the middle of the streets occasionally, and I was charmed to find out that these weren't, in fact, random obstructions designed to catch you unaware, but were actually carefully placed "traffic calming" schemes. Nice name! Still, it just goes to show that driving in the UK isn't quite as free and easy as Staddon suggests.

Kevin Drum 12:53 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (86)

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You'd love Brussels then.

Unless otherwise indicated, you are expected to slow down at EVERY intersection in order to check to your right. If someone's coming from the right, they get the right of way. Had a heck of a time remembering to do this at first since there isn't a stop sign to remind you. It's just expected. Makes for some interesting stand-offs when it's busy and people are coming from all directions.

Posted by: Everyman on June 12, 2008 at 1:04 AM | PERMALINK

Your comment reminds me of driving in the area west of Boston. You have six or seven roads come together in an elaborate intersection, with no signs whatsoever telling you directions or which road was which. The idea is, if you don't know where you are, you have no business being there.

Posted by: red@cted on June 12, 2008 at 1:10 AM | PERMALINK

Sounds a bit like driving in Davis, CA - random barriers for "traffic calming," roundabouts, a few intersections where you can only turn right, that sort of thing. And Davis, much like many cities in Europe, isn't really designed at heart for driving, though doing so isn't terribly inconvenient. Lots and lots of bike paths, wide bike lanes, buses, etc.

Posted by: Kurt Montandon on June 12, 2008 at 1:13 AM | PERMALINK

"Second, the Brits might not have as many stop signs and speed limit signs as us..."

"AS US"?!?! I guess you didn't spend much of your vacation picking up the Queen's English! :)

But seriously, U.S. signs are not that great either. IMO any highway on-ramp sign should state the route number, the route name (if any), the destination AND the direction. Most don't. "MacArthur Freeway" is likely to tell an out-of-towner nothing, if he has mapped out his route using an actual map. On the other hand, if he's taken down directions from a local, "580" doesn't tell him anything if the local has said, "Take the MacArthur Freeway."

(Whether any out-of-towner is likely to be able to navigate the stretch of highway along the east bay of SF where you can travel 580 West while simultaneously traveling 80 East, all the while heading in a generally northerly direction as per the compass--well, that is for another day.)

Posted by: Nancy Irving on June 12, 2008 at 1:31 AM | PERMALINK

Maybe it's just because we live in a big country and there can be a lot of regional variation to how well they design how the flow of traffic should work, but I have always found that here in New Jersey the traffic signs, the lanes, and often the enforcement seem to be OK and make sense.

More recently it seems like some unnecessary traffic signs or pavement-paint have gone up in a few places around me. In a couple place these additoins have seemed more confusing than helpful, and in others they didn't seem necessary, but I ended up deciding the new signs were perhaps good ideas anyway.

Posted by: Swan on June 12, 2008 at 1:33 AM | PERMALINK

I think that people in New Jersey are pretty good drivers though (I guess because living here involves a lot of driving, and the state is so congested that there are a lot of different driving situations that occur, so people get lots of practice and have to be competent and level-headed so they don't constantly bump into things) so it would make sense that someone from around here might be smart about designing the flow of traffic (that's assuming that most of the people who do this are from here, though, which I don't know at all, but I assume has to be the case for a lot of routine decisions about what new light needs to be put up or new lane needs to be created).

Posted by: Swan on June 12, 2008 at 1:38 AM | PERMALINK

I seem to recall that 'traffic calming' was what it was called when Motor Avenue in Los Angeles was turned into a parking lot. Technically it's still a road, but LA traffic engineers seem to think that 80% of the previous number of cars going through at 50% of the previous speed is "less traffic." Not that I'm angry or bitter or anything.

Posted by: J on June 12, 2008 at 1:54 AM | PERMALINK

Kevin wrote:

And as long as I'm venting a bit here, what is it with Europeans and compass points?

They think it's common sense that if you're trying to go someplace you've never been before, you take a look at a road map beforehand and make a mental note of the cities you're supposed to pass through (or highlight the map with the route and take the map with you).

Posted by: Swan on June 12, 2008 at 2:04 AM | PERMALINK

So it's not really like what you wrote-- that you have to know the whole map or be a local for the way they do the signs to make sense.

Posted by: Swan on June 12, 2008 at 2:06 AM | PERMALINK

But how is an incompetent, perhaps criminal mayor. like Chicago's Daley supposed to pay for the basics of government without completely arbitrary parking and speed limit changes?

Posted by: Mark on June 12, 2008 at 2:20 AM | PERMALINK

Just pick up some basic geography, Kevin, and you'll be OK driving in the UK.
I've been told a lot of the troops fighting in Iraq have trouble placing Iraq on a map, maybe Cheney's keeping it secret, and on a need to know basis.

At any rate, if you want to know where North, South, West and East are, just keep tabs on where the sun is in the sky. (And avoid night time driving.)

Posted by: SteinL on June 12, 2008 at 2:37 AM | PERMALINK

These days you get a GPS and that obviates much of the need for signs.

I agree that compass points in the SF Bay area don't mean much. If you follow 101 south down the peninsula it gradually curves so that it points in all sorts of directions along its length. When it gets to Mountain View it is almost running East-West.

I do think that signage in the west is better than in the east. In California the signs for the freeways are large and easy to see. Around Washington DC it seemed to me that the signs were small and located just at the point you needed to turn.

Posted by: JohnK on June 12, 2008 at 2:41 AM | PERMALINK

It isn't all plain sailing in the UK when it comes to driving.

When I lived in the UK, most "Boy Racers" really enjoyed the traffic calming measures. They considered them to be their very own race-track chicanes and weaving through them at the fastest possible speed was their aim.

Speed-bumps, or "Sleeping Policemen" were also designed to slow cars down and do for most people, but the Boy racers again have their very own "Bullitt" moment every time they speed up to hit them.

Police in the UK, if they pull you over would find it worrying if you stayed in your car. Everyone gets out and stands by the car waiting for the policeman to walk to them. (This is the cause many amusing "the policeman pointed a gun at me" tales of being pulled over when on holiday in the US.)

As for the camera signs, they outnumber the actual cameras by a factor of 100. Most of the cameras can be moved from one site to another easily. It's the fear of the camera more than the actual cameras that works best.

Posted by: Bad Rabbit on June 12, 2008 at 2:46 AM | PERMALINK

As someone who has lived and driven extensively in the states of California, Illinois, and New York, I can state with some confidence that nobody who lives in California ever should complain about signage here. It's superb.

As far as roundabouts/traffic circles go, they're good for some places, not for others. Retrofitting them into an existing urban fabric, and even many suburbs, can be a real pain in the ass. Grade-separated traffic circles like DuPont Circle are really the way to go.

Posted by: Pete on June 12, 2008 at 2:49 AM | PERMALINK

On compass points on signs:

You're either far enough away that you aught to have picked a city or two to head towards, or close enough to your destination that the fact you don't know precisely where you are when looking at the sign makes compass points useless.

Posted by: Phil on June 12, 2008 at 3:09 AM | PERMALINK

nobody who lives in California ever should complain about signage here. It's superb.

You don't know what you've lost until you move away... In addition to signage, nearly all California
traffic lights
have a light at eye level on the right in addition to the one above the intersection, so if you're at the limit line and are above average height or have a low roofline, you can see the light without hunching over like I have to do now in Washington State. Most other states get this wrong.

Posted by: me2i81 on June 12, 2008 at 3:17 AM | PERMALINK

Wak wak wak. Any post that isn't neocon-bashing, Bush-bashing, AmeriKKKa-bashing isn't worth our time! Every post title must have the words "Shrub, KKK, AmeriKKKa, NEOCON, Bushitler, etc...". If it fails to have any of those words, I will report you to the Minitruth. Down the Memory Hole this post goes.

Remember the manta: NEOCONS, NEOCONS, NEOCONS!!!!

Posted by: Freedom_Lover on June 12, 2008 at 3:27 AM | PERMALINK

Uh, me2i81 this is common isn't it? At least in Iowa, North Dakota and Minnesota....

Anyhow, on directions why should you have picked a city to head towards? Unless your car breaks down they are just useless blobs for your purposes. I suppose it's different if you have to drive through them, but seriously, why does it matter what cities you pass through? they don't give a fuck about you and you shouldn't need to give a fuck about them.

It's probably a vestige of before autos when people could only make about 100 miles a day on a fast horse...

Posted by: MNPundit on June 12, 2008 at 3:31 AM | PERMALINK

"As someone who has lived and driven extensively in the states of California, Illinois, and New York, I can state with some confidence that nobody who lives in California ever should complain about signage here. It's superb."

Around LA the signage is quite horrible, at least compared to Chicago (where I grew up). Some of the newer stuff is better, and Orange County (the richer parts, at least) tend to be pretty good.

But tons of stuff isn't marked that would have been in Illinois. I remember passing many 'Dip' signs there and wondering why they put them up; there was a slight depression in the road. Here there will be no warning, you'll bottom out your car (often on roads with lowered sides to control rain runoff).

It all feels third-worldy--dilapidated and falling apart.

Posted by: Chi on June 12, 2008 at 3:46 AM | PERMALINK

Traffic circles are OK if you're in a car. They SUCK BIG TIME if you're a pedestrian.

Posted by: Gregor Samsa on June 12, 2008 at 3:50 AM | PERMALINK

After we saved their fannies so often, you'd think they'd have the courtesy to Americanize their roadsigns for us.

I do agree with your N, S, E, W point, though (all kidding aside). I can't see how it fails to help their own drivers, too.

Posted by: DonkeyOdie on June 12, 2008 at 4:17 AM | PERMALINK

I tend to agree with MNPundit: European road signs are the way they are because they have always been that way, and there hasn't been a compelling reason to change. When I first moved to Germany the lack of compass points drove me insane, but after a few months it didn't bother me any more.

After all, for most driving purposes you don't really need the cardinal directions, you just need to know that you are on the right road to your destination. For example, I-71 North won't get you from Louisville to Indianapolis, or even close to it, although the cities themselves are pretty much north-south to each other and I-71 runs through Louisville. Similarly, I can't take the A3 from Frankfurt to Bremen, although ostentiably A3 would be a north-south interstate that runs through Frankfurt and Bremen is almost due north.

This is not to say that having the cardinal directions on signs is stupid or useless, but rather that it is not helpful enough to overcome the inertial of just doing things as they have alway been done.

Posted by: josephdietrich on June 12, 2008 at 4:23 AM | PERMALINK

"First, it wouldn't kill them to occasionally throw up a speed limit sign for the benefit of tourists who don't already know the rules for each specific kind of road."

Have you any idea how provincial you sound? The rules of the road are not transparent in any country, you need to be familiar with the laws before you drive. Certainly that's what US law enforcement regularly argues. Here in Germany, getting a driver's license is a whole hell of a lot more difficult to get than one in the U.S. You are expected to know the laws here, just as visitors to the U.S. are expected to know yours.

"Second, the Brits might not have as many stop signs and speed limit signs as us, but what they do have is an insane blizzard of signs informing you that a speed camera is watching you."

You would perhaps prefer not to be informed that you are under surveillance?

I apologize if I come across as strident, but you sound ridiculous here.

Cheers,

Alan Tomlinson

Posted by: on June 12, 2008 at 4:34 AM | PERMALINK

Down the Jersey Shore, we have all too many of those "roundabouts." Many of us detest them and find them horrifyingly dangerous (especially for those who only visit occasionally). Which goes to show, I guess, that it all depends on what you're used to. But here in America, where many drivers are unfamiliar with those, adding more would be a recipe for disaster.

Posted by: bcamarda on June 12, 2008 at 6:18 AM | PERMALINK

"Anyhow, on directions why should you have picked a city to head towards? Unless your car breaks down they are just useless blobs for your purposes. I suppose it's different if you have to drive through them, but seriously, why does it matter what cities you pass through? they don't give a fuck about you and you shouldn't need to give a fuck about them."

Depends how you like to navigate. Generally speaking, I tend to do it by town/landmark, and couldn't tell you in which literal direction I was headed in most of the time. I know, in a general sense that, say, Plymouth is south of Boston, Lowell north, Worcester west, and ditto for a hundred towns in between. And so I know that in driving on Rte 9 from Worcester to Boston, I'm headed east. But on a more local route, I probably couldn't say --- I'd know in a general sense where the towns were in relation to each other but would really have to stop and think hard about whether Elm St runs north south or east west when I take it as part of my route to travel between them.

Posted by: D. on June 12, 2008 at 7:09 AM | PERMALINK

What does 'North' mean in this context?
If you come to a T-Junction, at that point one road may lead north and the other south. But after five minutes on the road, you'll be travelling east or west. And then maybe south and north for a bit.
So, what? 'North' means 'the next town on the road is north of here', or 'the general direction of this road if you follow it for a while is north'?

Posted by: Ray on June 12, 2008 at 7:09 AM | PERMALINK

Great point!
This is exactly what I thought when I was in the United States. Giving driving directions by giving direction south,north,... etc. is really a great idea.
It made driving so much easier. In Germany you need always to take a map with you to know the direction you have to take.

Posted by: rz on June 12, 2008 at 7:18 AM | PERMALINK

Kevin the rules are really simple!

Built-up areas (usually indicated by street lights and houses), thirty miles per hour unless otherwise stated.

Outside built-up areas, sixty miles per hour on single carriageway roads unless otherwise stated and seventy miles per hour on dual carriageway roads (including motorways) unless otherwise stated.

If you stick to these limits you really will not go wrong.

Posted by: blowback on June 12, 2008 at 7:22 AM | PERMALINK

Mapquest tells me that Axminster is 7.2 miles south of Chard on the A358, in case you're still lost . . .

Posted by: rea on June 12, 2008 at 7:32 AM | PERMALINK

Saw a video recently on "biking for Everyone" (in Northern Europe) featuring many interesting German traffic controls (described only in German) including such things as "1-way for cars, 2-way for bikes" and "cars allowed, but they never, ever have the right of way". The 7 km/h neighborhood speed limits sounded like something that would be a little foreign to US Americans, too.

video: http://www.sfu.ca/city/city_pgm_video020.htm

slides: http://www.policy.rutgers.edu/faculty/pucher/BikeSummit2007COMP_Mar25.pdf

Posted by: dr2chase on June 12, 2008 at 7:38 AM | PERMALINK

Kevin,

In many European countries and especially in the UK the requirements for getting a driver's license are extensive. Many, many hours of road instruction are required and the tests last hours. You are required to perform well in many different circumstances. In the US, they usually have you do a few mintues on a course and then answer 20 questions, most of which are about drunk driving. I think higher degree of skill negates the need for many of the signs. That said I agree totally on giving compass points. I'm living in the Netherlands where the sun is often absent for days so you can't rely on that. GPS is a must but can ofte get you in trouble.

Posted by: Tom Power on June 12, 2008 at 7:42 AM | PERMALINK

When I first moved to Germany the lack of compass points drove me insane, but after a few months it didn't bother me any more.

Well, sure, after you learned the local geography. I've had to guess a couple of times over there and managed to get lucky (sun angle doesn't help if it's cloudy, which isn't unheard of). It sucks for visitors, who I guess are expected to have a mental map of all cities above 50,000 people wherever they're going. So yes, compass directions would be nice. Of course, when you do put compass points on road signs, you get the inevitable problem of route X South going vaguely northeast for part of the time. Still, it's better than the alternative.

Washington DC signage is execrable. There are a lot of highway signs that are only visible after the decision point; I can't imagine how anyone could possibly follow them without knowing exactly where they were going anyways.


Posted by: ericblair on June 12, 2008 at 8:02 AM | PERMALINK

"Outside built-up areas, sixty miles per hour on single carriageway roads ..."

Welcome to world-famous single lane roads of Scotland, with their carefully designed passing places.

Now, if you are on a road like that you better know the village or estate to which you are going. But even 20 mph can be excessive if a bend is close.

My pet peeve about the signage was an abundance of warnings to watch for red squirrels -- we did not see any.

I was in a group, sister-in-law driving and me, map reading, so it was OK. But they expect you to drive on the left side, and occasionally, backward, if the nearest passing place is behind you, and there you have to position yourself on the left side. I recommend bicycle touring.

Posted by: piotr on June 12, 2008 at 8:11 AM | PERMALINK

My biggest complaint about signs in England is how often they are behind trees (in summer at least). And how when you are following a particular destination, it disappears (you need to know what else is on the same route). Still compared to Germany there are some pluses
1. Catseyes reflectors on the motorways so that when it is wet and dark you can see the lanes.
2. Lights on signs so you are warned one is coming up. On German autobahns you often see them first as you pass them.

Posted by: reason on June 12, 2008 at 8:13 AM | PERMALINK

A Libertarian tale: A minor collision at the foot of a ramp connecting a freeway with a major highway in Austin, Tx, blocked the ramp. I was stuck on the ramp as traffic exiting the freeway had to merge around the accident onto the busy highway. Things were going smoothly, however, and there was very little backup, as drivers on the highway would politely allow cars on the ramp to merge, one at a time. A little later, my errand done, I found myself back at the scene, but traffic was now gridlocked. The reason: a cop had appeared and was directing traffic. The slow, smooth cooperative merging of cars was transformed into a jerky stop-and-go snarl, thanks to the cop's interference in what had been a fine exercise in driver civility.

Posted by: JeremiadJones on June 12, 2008 at 8:20 AM | PERMALINK

"After we saved their fannies so often, you'd think they'd have the courtesy to Americanize their roadsigns for us."

Never mind the "cop pulled a gun on me when I got out the car" cultural differences, if you've just had a holiday here in the UK you'll hopefully also appreciate why that's the funniest thing I've read all day (clue for those who don't get it - we, ummm, don't use the word fanny in quite the same way).

Oh, and surely in the UK we would "Americanise" signs? Unless of course we'd Americanized our linguistics first... :-)

Posted by: ally on June 12, 2008 at 8:20 AM | PERMALINK

"After we saved their fannies so often, you'd think they'd have the courtesy to Americanize their roadsigns for us."

Never mind the "cop pulled a gun on me when I got out the car" cultural differences, if you've just had a holiday here in the UK you'll hopefully also appreciate why that's the funniest thing I've read all day (clue for those who don't get it - we, ummm, don't use the word fanny in quite the same way).

Oh, and surely in the UK we would "Americanise" signs? Unless of course we'd Americanized our linguistics first... :-)

Posted by: ally on June 12, 2008 at 8:21 AM | PERMALINK

Speaking of signs... I've noticed a change in how signs are getting vandalized where I live. Instead of putting bullet holes in them (in the rural areas anyhow), or spray-painting the numbers different (making 50mph say 80mph). They are now disassembling them with cordless screwdrivers and reinstalling them upside down. The signs stay physically intact, they just create a labor problem for the highway department.

Posted by: Doc at the Radar Station on June 12, 2008 at 8:30 AM | PERMALINK

60s Brit comedy troupe Beyond the Fringe, in their WWII skit "Aftermyth of War," depict the stout British locals changing road signs around in anticipation of a German invasion. From memory, it goes roughly like this:

"We'll change Ipswitch for Great Yarmouth."

"Aye, and Great Yarmouth for Lyme-Regis."

"That'll fool the Bosch!"

"Aye, that'll fool 'em!"

[Awkward pause.]

"'ere. 'ow do we get 'ome?"

I think that's where the trouble started.

bn

Posted by: nothstine on June 12, 2008 at 8:59 AM | PERMALINK

Don't forget that the Brits drive on the wrong side of the road. Insanity, that.

Why the empire fell.

Posted by: Buford on June 12, 2008 at 9:17 AM | PERMALINK

I'll agree that the signage around Washington DC is pretty awful. It doesn't help that the road network itself is pretty terrible, with some major highways not actually meeting with each other. It's definitely an area where you get lost a lot until you learn your way around.

And the goofy diagonal state streets in the District make navigation an adventure with all the traffic circles. Whenever I've tried to get somewhere, it's more a matter of diffusion than direct driving, since the direction I leave a traffic circle in is pretty much random.

Posted by: Doug T on June 12, 2008 at 9:26 AM | PERMALINK

Swan,

Are you a native of New Jersey? I ask this because after living in Jersey five years I have noticed that the natives think they have the best signs, drivers, and the best designed roads. Non-natives think these claims are false, and only make sense if you assume that it's opposite day or something.

Posted by: DBake on June 12, 2008 at 9:31 AM | PERMALINK

SteinL at 2:37,

"At any rate, if you want to know where North, South, West and East are, just keep tabs on where the sun is in the sky."

Ha! That was a good one! Watch the Sun! In the UK! Ha!

Posted by: Dave on June 12, 2008 at 9:43 AM | PERMALINK

"Calming" features like "knuckles" are part and parcel of Traditional Neighborhood Design here in the U.S., Kevin.

Posted by: SocraticGadfly on June 12, 2008 at 10:02 AM | PERMALINK

A British friend's American stepmother got stopped on a highway in Britain because she was going too slow and impeding the flow of traffic. I've always loved that story.

But I wonder if Britain doesn't need as many signs because there aren't as many people driving, and those who do get more extensive training. They also seem to respect pedestrians a lot more than in this country.

Driving through Maine once was a nightmare if you're not taking the interstate. You'd be heading south and the route would say you were heading west. Then you get to a T-stop and have to choose between going north or east. huh? It took us hours to get by Kennebunkport.

And re: New Jersey drivers. I have only driven through Jersey once. But I have much experience with NJ drivers in South Florida. Maybe the worst of the crop come to Florida, but the only drivers who were worse were from Montreal.

Posted by: lou on June 12, 2008 at 10:03 AM | PERMALINK

In regards to the compass point thing... If you look at maps of some urban areas in the UK or in the northeastern US everything is all scriggly, with highways darting and shooting off every which way. Compass points wouldn't be much help. It would be like saying that Hwy X is going sorta NNE, Hwy Y sorta SSW, etc. As you move west in time through the US you see more and more orthogonal streets where compass points would be more helpful. I guess the older scriggly roads followed the contours of the land instead of being planned so much. Maybe in these areas instead of compass points you could have some form of a "You Are Here" type of sign.

Posted by: Doc at the Radar Station on June 12, 2008 at 10:11 AM | PERMALINK

But if we didn't have excessive traffic signs, we couldn't arrest people for "driving while black."[/sarcasm]

Posted by: jonp72 on June 12, 2008 at 10:31 AM | PERMALINK

Liberatrian Alaska story.

I was trying to dirve across Anchorage one day when the power was out and the traffic lights weren't working.

Every intersection was a male hormone-powered big truck intimadation competition. trucks lunging into the intersection, trucks revving their engines, trucks trying to bullying thier way across . I was in a tiny little rental car and the onl way I could survive was t suck upt he back bumper of a semi ( a Reallly Big Truck) and scarmper across intersections n his wake.

There was absolutle no cooperration--only the rawest competition.

And no traffic cops.

but that wasn't half as scarey as Ireland where the roads are one or maybe one and a lhalf lanes wide, bordered on both sides with stone fences, no shoulders, frequented by sheep, bicycles, and preganant women pushing baby buggies and the traffic is heavy. Visibility? The next blind corner is never more than a quarter mile away.Speed limits are the kilometer equivalent of fifty to sixty annd the death tolls re posted on county lies.

They have traffic calming stations there too which at first i thought were places were one could get some valium but no such luck.

Sereioulsy County Kerry has twenty or so traffic fatalities a year.

In two weeks i never saw a cop. Maybe because I spent the whole trip curled up in the fetal position with my eyes closed.

Posted by: wonkie on June 12, 2008 at 10:31 AM | PERMALINK

You must not have seen the British mini-series Five Days. They do indeed have those cameras all over.

Hubby and I drove all over Great Britain and there were challenges a-many, including incredibly narrow one-lane roads with high hedgerows on either side.

Picturesque but scary.

Probably the scariest time for a Yank, however, was when, on a good two-lane highway with a wide shoulder, someone coming towards you just sort of blithely pulls out to pass.

The British, you see, have to actually prove they can drive to get a license, and they just calmly pull over towards the shoulder to accommodate the oncoming passer.

Loved the roundabouts. But again, Americans are such horrible drivers that they probably wouldn't work here. You have to be aware of other vehicles around you to use them, you see.

Posted by: Cal Gal on June 12, 2008 at 11:17 AM | PERMALINK

England's not the only place that leaves the direction indicator off it's signs - I've the same complaint in the Seattle area. Equally frustrating.

Posted by: Frank on June 12, 2008 at 11:24 AM | PERMALINK

I'm always bemused when if find myself driving north while simultaneously being on 580 west and 80 east, as Nancy Irving pointed out. It makes a perverse sense, but has to be confusing as hell to inexperienced drivers.

The latest traffic scheme I've noticed in the north bay is 4-way intersections with both stop signs for all directions and a roundabout in the middle. I guess somebody thought those roundabouts were quaint, without quite understanding the concept.

Posted by: mrgumby2u on June 12, 2008 at 11:38 AM | PERMALINK

What JohnK said about 101 in the Bay Area applies even more, I think, to 80. It always confused me that a road that basically runs north an south along the East Bay shoreline was described as 80 East and 80 West.

JeremiadJones reminds me to tell visitors to NoCal that the road etiquette here is to merge just like he described. When a lane ends on the freeway, it's one car from the right, one car from the left. Merging on the rush hour freeway, it's ne car from the on ramp, one car on the highway. Lights metering the onflow during peak hours actually DO make this work. And that means YOU in the Minnesota SUV on the Larkspur onramp to 101. Just let the Mini in, OK. And good for you, Mini, to insist on it.

Posted by: Cal Gal on June 12, 2008 at 11:41 AM | PERMALINK

I'm sorry Kevin, but when travelling in a foreign country, isn't it a good idea to be aware of legal and/or customary differences? If you're going to be driving, any travel guide will give you tips on what to expect, and what the local laws require. I did that in Ireland a couple of years back, and I had no problem. Well, other than driving on the wrong (or right) side of the road once in a while!

Posted by: MeLoseBrain? on June 12, 2008 at 11:44 AM | PERMALINK

I read that article a coupla nights ago. I wonder how UK driver education compares to American driver education. The UK's relative lack of signage might not be the only contributor to its relative lack of road fatalities and injuries.

Posted by: Model 62 on June 12, 2008 at 11:46 AM | PERMALINK
It always confused me that a road that basically runs north an south along the East Bay shoreline was described as 80 East and 80 West.

Which, by itself, is confusing enough, but is made even more potentially confusing in that the portion that runs almost due North but is called I-80 East is also, over part of its range, called I-580 West (and the corresponding southbound section is I-80 West and I-580 East.)


Posted by: cmdicely on June 12, 2008 at 11:55 AM | PERMALINK

Telling someone to read the map doesn't work if you don't have a passenger to do the navigation. I found the GPS to be wonderful for navigating through England last year (I wouldn't have made it otherwise). It nicely tells you which exit off the roundabout to take.

Posted by: peej on June 12, 2008 at 11:58 AM | PERMALINK

In 1965, a friend and I drove around Europe for almost six months. We started in England, where I bought a tiny Sunbeam Imp with the steering wheel on the left side. So, for starters, as we drove through the UK, we had a disadvantage driving on the left side, when it came to passing. The person in the passenger seat had to watch for oncoming traffic.

We drove west and north from London and ended up on the M-6, as I recall, and stopped in Birmingham, a dirty factory town at the time. We got hopelessly lost and couldn’t find our way back to the main highway, so we stopped at a petrol station. One of the men gave us directions. When we asked why there were no signs telling drivers how to find the highway, one man, amazed at our stupidity, said, “Everyone knows where the M-6 is.” That is when we realized we were no longer in Kansas anymore. The rest of the trip was trying to discover what was obvious to everyone else.

Posted by: emmarose on June 12, 2008 at 12:01 PM | PERMALINK

In MA we have quite a few roundabouts, or rotaries as we call them. We hates them. They are good when 5 or more roads come together, they are well engineered with traffic lights as needed, and the traffic load is not heavier than the road/rotary was designed for. If any of these conditions is not met, especially the last one, they are hell. There's one about four miles from my house that drives everyone absolutely insane, and westbound traffic backs up at least a mile from it most evenings. Another round of so-called planning and citizen input is now in progress to try to figure out what to do with it. This has been going on for over ten years, with no actual plan in sight because the best way to fix it, with an overpass, is "too expensive," and all the other possibilities have major drawbacks. People avoid the rotary if they can, but since it's on the main artery between Boston and the outer northwestern suburbs, this is not easy.

In MA all the side streets and intersections of state routes are signed, but the main streets that aren't state routes are not unless two or more come together (and not always then), apparently on the same "if you're not from around here you don't belong here" theory.

Posted by: Lucia on June 12, 2008 at 12:03 PM | PERMALINK

" Their road signs tend to be gloriously well designed and easy to decipher, but they never include the words north, south, east, or west."

'Cos you navigate by landmarks there, not by compass directions. Ask someone for directions in the UK, and they'll never give compass directions. Was a major adjustment for me when I moved from the UK to the US.

On driving licenses: far, far, far harder to get a license in the US than in the UK. In the UK, if you don't always look at your mirrors before, during, and after a manoeuvre, you'll fail the test. In the US, it seemed as long as you didn't mow a pedestrian down, you could still pass.

As for roundabouts: work well in the more organic streets and roads of the UK, but would be awkward in a grid system. Four-way stops or traffic lights are probably better.

Posted by: Sock Puppet of the Great Satan on June 12, 2008 at 12:04 PM | PERMALINK

If you want squiggly roads with no signs whatsoever then one needed spend all that money (and carbon) flying over to England to drive.

Just_do_Pittsburgh.

Posted by: optical weenie on June 12, 2008 at 12:07 PM | PERMALINK

In the one place that compass directions would make sense in the UK (on motorways or major dual carriageways) we have them. Signs will say "M4 westbound" or "M1 South" or "M25 clockwise" or whatever. For the rest of them, they hardly travel in one direction for long enough for compass directions to help in any way.

Trivia: The band "Hatfield and the North" got their name from one of the signs you don't think exist.

Posted by: Keith on June 12, 2008 at 12:10 PM | PERMALINK

Screw Pittsburgh.
In downtown Boston the roads were originally laid out by cows. That might be an urban legend but try driving though there sometime.

Posted by: thersites on June 12, 2008 at 12:21 PM | PERMALINK

Uh, me2i81 this is common isn't it? At least in Iowa, North Dakota and Minnesota....
I guess it depends. They don't do it in a lot of states I've driven in, like New York, Connecticut, Washington, Massachusetts, etc. Maybe they're more sensible in the midwest.

Posted by: on June 12, 2008 at 12:38 PM | PERMALINK

When traveling in Europe, I can strongly recommend buying a portable GPS. We bought a Garmin with both U.S. and European maps, and it has saved us numerous fights. Whether it was the small roads at the Verdun battlefield or the winding medieval streets of Kolmar, like magic “Jill” calmly took us left and right and through the second exit off the traffic circle to get us where we wanted to go. She even knew the way to the highly rated hole in the wall Alsatian restaurant we wanted to go to. The only irritating thing was the way Jill’s English voice synthesizer butchers European street names (Jan Stress = Johann Strasse). It cost it few $$$, but our GPS has been well worth it.

The general problem with maps in Europe is the density of development. A large scale map will often have dozens of freeways and thousands of towns, creating information overload. The small scale maps cover a limited area, but often still don’t have sufficient detail. The GPS costs a few $$$, but solves these problems.

Posted by: fafner1 on June 12, 2008 at 12:39 PM | PERMALINK

My favorite British road sign:

"Changed priorities ahead."

Applies to so many situtations, not just driving.

Second favorite: "Adverse camber." What is this, a vocabulary test?

Posted by: Jake on June 12, 2008 at 1:08 PM | PERMALINK

Man, I LOVED driving in the UK once I got used to it. The massive difference between here and there is that the Brits know how to drive and most of us don't. They almost uniformly abide by the rules, written and unwritten, and they know the size and capabilities of their vehicles to the inch.

Roundabouts work wonderfully there because everybody knows the rules about how you get in and out of them and who goes first and who has the right of way, and they follow them. In the U.S., rotaries are a giant game of chicken with no rules other than "He who hesitates is lost."

Nobody in the UK practices "defensive driving" because they have justifiable confidence that nobody's going to do anything stupid or lose control of their vehicles. So they go barreling down twisty country roads at or above the speed limit but staying strictly within lane and passing oncoming traffic sometimes only by inches. I understand they have a very low accident rate, but a very high percentage of those accidents are fatal.

From my conversations with Brits, I think any politician who promised to put compass points on road signs would be swept into office by acclamation. Everyone I mentioned the concept to lit up like a Christmas tree at the very idea once it was explained.

Posted by: gyrfalcon on June 12, 2008 at 1:14 PM | PERMALINK

I grew up in L.A., but I've spent the last 17 years in Boston. I consider it an exhibition for students to study what not to do when making roads.

Posted by: mroberts on June 12, 2008 at 1:23 PM | PERMALINK

A major factor not discussed here; Pedestrians and Bicycles. In Chicago it seems that there is a constant war between the 3 and the only thing keeping the cars from running (more) people over is stop signs.

Posted by: Guy on June 12, 2008 at 1:27 PM | PERMALINK

Here in SE Connecticut, US Route 1 (which goes from Maine to Key West) is in some places labeled East/West rather than North/South, because it does in fact go east-west through the state. I-95, which parallels it, is always North/South.

There is a traffic circle between an I-95 exit and Foxwoods casino; CT rules were that the traffic *in* the circle yields to incoming vehicles, which is backwards from, apparently, the rest of the world: certainly from what I learned as a kid in NJ. The rule, at least for this circle, was changed so that traffic in the circle had the right-of-way, and peace was restored.

I have driven in the UK (left-handed stick shift!) and don't recall many problems, except for making a left turn in town and automatically drifting to the right lane.

Posted by: steverino on June 12, 2008 at 1:41 PM | PERMALINK

The appearance and placement of traffic in all states which received federal highway funding is governed by the Federal Highway Administration's "Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices".

We of the USA are big on writing standards. Standards, though, have their drawback, that is if an agency of government does not follow the standard and their is an accident the government (you and I) pays.

So essentially the development of standards for the placement of traffic control devices (signs, striping, construction warning devices, and etc.) has been driven, over the years, by juries and judges. A lawsuit is how it came to be that roadway shoulders became to be legally considered a part of the roadway, for instance.

So the placement of signs should be about the same in CA as it is in all states.

Posted by: Chris Brown on June 12, 2008 at 1:41 PM | PERMALINK

n the UK, if you don't always look at your mirrors before, during, and after a manoeuvre, you'll fail the test. In the US, it seemed as long as you didn't mow a pedestrian down, you could still pass.

Not true. The first time I took my driver's test (in CA), I got failed for not looking in my mirrors enough or looking* down side streets in residential areas.

* Obviously looking was the problem. Flicking my eyes and noticing no one was coming was insufficient for the examiner. During the second time around I exaggerated my mirror looks and head turns for side streets. This actually led to less safe driving, but I passed.

Posted by: Mo on June 12, 2008 at 1:44 PM | PERMALINK

I happen to like the European signage that contain the city names instead of the direction. Having driven in numerous European countries over the years (while using a map, since I'm not a local), it was always perfectly clear to me which direction I should take.

Plus, the compass points don't always help, since we only use four of them. What should we say when a road runs NE/SW? What about circular highways (like the DC Beltway), whose directions change based on where you are?

Posted by: sean on June 12, 2008 at 1:50 PM | PERMALINK

After having read through the comments on this thread, it boggles my mind how many people drive around unfamiliar places without using a map. If you get lost in a strange land and don't have a map, then that's your own fault.

Posted by: sean on June 12, 2008 at 2:05 PM | PERMALINK

" Screw Pittsburgh. In downtown Boston .."- Thersites

Guess I couldn't expect a polite response from a Massachussetsian who drives a big a$$, gas guzzling Extinction that he won't let go of until we pry it out from under his cold, dead cheeks.

Actually the roads in Pittsburgh ARE worse than those in Boston. The drivers, however, ARE worse in Boston than those in Pittsburgh.

Posted by: optical weenie on June 12, 2008 at 2:36 PM | PERMALINK

"..but they never include the words north, south, east, or west."

How many of those roads actually head east, west south or north? I seems to me that a lot of the roads in the UK followed old routes laid out in the days when folks walked everywhere. Here we have a very nice grid system that lends itself nicely to the compass points, there not so much.

Posted by: on June 12, 2008 at 2:51 PM | PERMALINK

In Germany, the speed is 50 km/hr inside town limits (defined by yellow city limit signs), except where otherwise posted (eg, residential areas), and 100 Km/hr outside city limits. On the Autobahn, the speeds are regulated via electronic signs, based on road conditions. Pretty simple.

Posted by: rbe1 on June 12, 2008 at 3:23 PM | PERMALINK

A sign that tells you which city the road is going to doesn't help if you aren't going that far and don't know where that city is. California freeway signs do this, although the cities are generally big enough that they are familiar. North of SF, for example, 101 north signs say "Eureka", but if you are from out of state and going to Santa Rosa, you might not know that's the way to go.

I like roundabouts, but England can get excessive. The Magic Roundabout in Swindon is incredible. I've never driven through anything like this; the only UK driving I've done is in Scotland.

Posted by: OriGuy on June 12, 2008 at 3:40 PM | PERMALINK

We have traffic calming in my neighborhood, and it works OK. I'd rather have tables than bumps any day! Maybe we need the speed tables so people can take the time to decide which road to take -- there are North, South, East, and West Glebe to choose from!

Also: I changed the voice on my GPS to British English so I could hear her tell me to "enter roundabout". I hear that a LOT driving in DC. Hub-and-spoke, baby, hub-and-spoke.

Posted by: ajw_93 on June 12, 2008 at 4:10 PM | PERMALINK

Massachussetsian

The proper term is: Masshole.

Posted by: thersites on June 12, 2008 at 4:19 PM | PERMALINK

Nobody in the UK practices "defensive driving" because they have justifiable confidence that nobody's going to do anything stupid or lose control of their vehicles. So they go barreling down twisty country roads at or above the speed limit but staying strictly within lane and passing oncoming traffic sometimes only by inches. I understand they have a very low accident rate, but a very high percentage of those accidents are fatal.

In 1965, my friend and I drove from Edinburgh, Scotland, to London in one day. We thought we were being smart by driving on a Monday, instead of the Easter weekend. But, unbeknownst to us, that Monday was a Bank Holiday and almost everyone in the country was on the road with us and driving home that day, too.

The roads in Scotland were narrow and twisty and it wasn’t uncommon for sheep to suddenly appear. I don’t know how many times we saw people passing on blind curves. We eventually reached the M-1 and the rest of the trip was O.K.

The next day we read in The New York Herald Tribune (now the International Herald Tribune) that there had been several fatal accidents on that very route!


Posted by: emmarose on June 12, 2008 at 4:56 PM | PERMALINK

It is interesting that you note about the lack of direction on signs in Europe - thus relying of knowledge of may places. Of course, with TomToms it matters much less.

But a colleague from the Netherlands makes this comment frequently as well. He likes the US system much better.

Posted by: George on June 12, 2008 at 6:32 PM | PERMALINK

Yes, there are way too many traffic lights in Southern California. Too much waiting time at minor intersections, and too many three-way lights.

Getting to the differences in driving in Europe versus the US--here you have to know the direction
you're going--there you have to know your destination. I think's it's a matter of culture and taste.

Posted by: mikeel on June 12, 2008 at 11:23 PM | PERMALINK

I like this Dutch idea of getting rid of traffic signs in towns:

http://tinyurl.com/wppac

The worst thing about Boston is Commonwealth Ave. When they planned that road, they must have worked hard to figure out how to get every intuitive cue to trick people into driving toward oncoming traffic.

Posted by: otherpaul on June 12, 2008 at 11:31 PM | PERMALINK

When I moved to California from Chicago, I started a poem that went, "and the signs don't say north or south, they say Buenavista and Ventura, although where those are, we aren't sure a...." Lots of places in CA where you can't tell what direction you are being told to go...and then there is Egypt, where I am presently living where none of the signs give direction.

Posted by: christine on June 13, 2008 at 12:45 AM | PERMALINK

Kevin, you should have enjoyed our motorway signs that say "The South" or "The North". They always make me laugh: like I don't know which end of the country I'm driving toward! Still, you may have spotted a market. You should start a business selling dashboard compasses to tourists.

A good roundabout is a thing of design beauty. Sorry to hear that "rotaries" are still mistaken for them in the USA. The design technology is fundamentally different, such that expensive road excavation is necessary to turn one into the other. American road engineers have started calling roundabouts "Modern Roundabouts" to emphasise the difference. Google "modern roundabout" for some plaintive advocacy.

Posted by: derek on June 13, 2008 at 8:42 AM | PERMALINK

Re. "First, it wouldn't kill them to occasionally throw up a speed limit sign for the benefit of tourists who don't already know the rules for each specific kind of road", actually in most European countries whenever you cross the border or outside international airports you'll find large signs listing types of roads with relevant speed limits (I have a photo I could show but it cannot be attached to the comment).
In any case, when travelling to another country you are expected to get familiar with its rules of the road.

Posted by: Licia on June 19, 2008 at 4:23 AM | PERMALINK




 

 

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