Rhyming construction signs don't 'stride to better your ride'

THE INTREPID COMMUTER

August 29, 1994

Intrepid is opining

about bad rhyming.

Around most highway work

you see these signs, you jerk.

Somebody's writing stuff

to tell us roads are rough.

All we can say

is take them away.

Intrepid Commuter has sunk to a new low.

We can thank Gary Smith for this. His recent letter regarding rhyming highway signs unleashed the bad poet within us.

Overcoming this experience will require some intensive therapy. Perhaps another visit to the 12-verse program at the Rod McKuen Institute For The Poetically Impaired. (Our motto: Roses are red. Violets are blue. I feel really good about myself. The straitjacket helps, too.)

But we digress.

Mr. Smith's inquiry concerns the State Highway Administration (SHA) signs with slogans such as "We're Improving To Keep You Moving," or "Taking a Stride to Better Your Ride." He regards them as somewhat inane.

To make matters worse, they often pop up on highway projects that seem to take longer than they should. Roads are frequently milled, he notes, and then months pass before a new layer of asphalt is applied.

This gives the effect that nothing concrete (pardon the pun) is going on, only public relations.

"Who makes up those slogans that appear on road construction and safety signs?" the Woodlawn resident asks. "They seem to have surfaced during the Schaefer regime, and, of course, we all know how our governor loves a catchy phrase."

SHA spokeswoman Valerie Burnette Edgar tells us that the trend toward rhyming signs started in 1989. Their chief proponent is none other than the aforementioned William Donald Schaefer. He is not, however, their author.

That honor goes to SHA employees who have come up with slogans, some of which originated in a rhyming couplets competition.

"For most people, construction is an aggravation. We wanted to show we understand that," Mrs. Edgar says. "The governor wanted us to show government had a sense of humor."

As for the slowness of the roadwork, Mrs. Edgar says that is primarily a result of the severe winter. The roads were so badly damaged they needed to be milled -- the top layer of asphalt ground away -- for safety reasons. Better a rough road than one strewn with potholes, she says.

Think of the milling as a form of emergency repair. To do that, the SHA awarded contracts just for milling in a number of cases. While milling and paving are usually handled by the same company, the paving had to come later this year.

No signaling leaves many without a clue

Erwin D. Riedner, we hear where you're coming from.

Mr. Riedner, an audiologist, recently wrote us to complain about the lack of signaling on the highways.

It's probably a sign of the times. Fewer drivers are bothering to turn on a blinker before changing lanes.

"I'll wager there would be fewer accidents [not to mention incidents of elevated blood pressure] if drivers sedulously signaled prior to switching lanes, weaving, cutting someone off, squeezing in, crossing four lanes in one fell swoop and so on," the Mount Washington resident writes.

He offers a modest proposal: Install signs reminding motorists to "Signal Prior to Changing Lanes" along multilane roads.

"Such signs would, in my experienced and cogent opinion, be a great boon to safety," Mr. Riedner writes. "In fact, I would be willing to help design a controlled experiment to test the hypothesis that on highways where such signs were frequently posted, there would be fewer accidents, the average speed would be lower, and the general attitude would be better."

Naturally, we forwarded the offer to the State Highway Administration, where safety boons are in short supply.

Thomas Hicks, head of SHA's traffic and safety office, politely declined. He says a similar message is already broadcast regularly on the electronic variable message signs scattered around the interstates.

But more significantly, Mr. Hicks is against sign clutter. He believes that the more messages you post, the less likely drivers are to pay attention to them.

Unfortunately, authorities don't keep records on how often failure to signal causes accidents. It is not likely to be a leading cause, but Mr. Hicks concedes that the number of motorists failing to signal may well be on the rise.

"I think a high percentage of people still signal, maybe seven out of 10," Mr. Hicks says. "Thirty percent is still a large number, but we don't as a rule want to shove a lot of safety messages along the highway."

You also have to wonder WHY people don't signal. With aggressive drivers it's often a deliberate attempt not to telegraph their intention to other drivers who might try to cut them off.

For others, it may be a matter of laziness or whatever disease causes motorists to run red lights, not pull over when they see an ambulance with a flashing siren, never yield, or otherwise violate traffic laws.

Experts question the effectiveness of general messages such as "buckle up" or "signal before changing lanes" as a cure, however. Driver memory may be too short-term.

"If I'm in the process of changing lanes and a sign happens to be there, it might have some effect on me," says Gerson J. Alexander, a Rockville-based traffic consultant. "If it has no relevance to what I'm doing at that moment, the message will be quickly forgotten."

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