"We like camping better!" --Raymond Alexander Kukkee

view of the north shore Critter Pond, KOA Canandaigua NY [c] 2009 jcb

Signs, Signs -- Why can't highway signs work better?

by Jim Bessey

highways signs from Writing for Designers, Geo Mason Univ
Image from a great sign article at Writing for Designers, Geo Mason U
Why are highway signs so often barely adequate? Anyone who drives a big Class A motorhome or pulls a trailer far from home knows exactly what I mean. When expressways divide or have complicated exits, why aren't the signs better? Why don't we get better warnings for major lane changes?

We don't all use GPS. Some of us just print out the MapQuest directions, or --heaven forbid!-- use ordinary paper road maps. Maybe we don't like that metallic voice yakking in our ears like a back seat mother-in-law. So we need good signs. We need advance notice.

Those are the drivers you see in panic mode

Add my truck and camper together and I've got a 10,000-pound train that's over 40 feet long. You don't want me to have to make a sudden lane change right in front of you. Ever seen a camping trailer on its side in the median? I have, and it's not pretty.

from Jacksonville.com article
If you give me "JCT 490W/490E 1/4 MI" (a real sign) in four lanes of heavy traffic, that's only about 400 yards to work with. City through-loops and by-passes are notorious for doing this to drivers. Sure, the locals know they have to cross over three lanes --quick!-- and be in the far right lane to hit the Exit Only ramp in time. But for out-of-towners? Those are the drivers you see in panic mode. Now add a trailer or 5th wheel into the equation and bad things can happen in a hurry.

When you're driving or towing a large RV, the need to make sudden short-notice lane changes can be deadly. You have to trust your mirrors and the drivers around you. Nobody wants to get stuck behind you, so they pass you any way they can. What if it's pouring rain? Pray, or play it safe and miss your exit.

better design for highway signs
from another cool sign article!
It's an easy problem to fix. I've seen those rare places where the DOT got it right. They pick a handy overpass about a mile ahead of a major split, and they draw you a giant picture. You don't have to read little signs with numbers; just follow the big arrows. "OK, so the two left lanes keep going, but the right one goes north and next one in goes south." How simple was that?

And it's the "mile in advance" that really matters.

When drivers have plenty of time to work their way into the correct lane there's room for courtesy to work its magic. You can change lanes at speed, instead of forcing drivers behind you to hit the brakes. With room to react, most drivers are happy to let big rigs get where they need to go. Nobody wants to get crunched!

I'll bet rescue workers and the automobile insurance companies are with me on this rant. Let's do some math, in this fictional (but realistic) accounting:

  • One badly-damaged full-size pick-up: $15,000
  • One destroyed travel trailer: $21,000
  • Value of possessions ruined in crash: $1,800
  • Two other vehicles damaged by collision: $12,000
  • Hospital stay for one injured motorist: $31,000
  • Deployment cost for three police cars, two fire trucks, ambulance, critical care response unit, and a dozen or more first-responders -- ?? Certainly $2,000 or more.
  •  TOTAL: at least $80,000
I don't know how the math works for those totally cool giant-picture road signs, but I'm willing to wager that $80,000 will buy more than one. (Pennsylvania's DOT spent about $60,000 for thirty big road signs in this story from 2009.)  And if better signage can save just ONE life, what's that worth? 

How about you? Do you have any pictures of almost-worthless highway signage? Send me you photo and I'll publish it here. You can reach me via Comments or by using the link at the top of this page.


  1. I don't usually do much "research" when I write a rant, but I needed some great images for this post--and found them! If you're interested in the science of signs, please do follow the links included in my post for some great reading.

  2. Jim, great article! Lovely rant, and SO appropriate. Highway signage seldom offers adequate warning for major driver decisions, especially EXITS on the LEFT side across other lanes of traffic. "Out of towners" who have NEVER been on that highway have no idea where they are going at times....yet must make instantaneous decisions. That almost guarantees accidents especially with big rigs.
    Who designs these signs anyway? Your suggestion of huge arrows is simple, logical,and the right way to go. Excellent suggestion!

  3. I guess it's the same all the world over with road signs, it certainly is here in the UK.

  4. Definitely,what a fantastic blog and enlightening posts,I definitely will bookmark your website.Best Regards! Sign Posts

  5. Anonymous10:03 AM

    Think of the over the road drivers with the big trucks. No gps on most of them only paper maps. Been there done that so i do understand what you are saying. The drivers with the rv's expect other vehicles to let them in but the same thing for the big truck will not usually happen. It's a two way street called consideration and alot of it is gone sorry to say.

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