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Saturday, May 12, 2012

Cost of improper signage

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Small things, yet very important. I am talking of traffic signage in India. Traffic signs are obviously very important for road users. They serve primarily two functions: information and warning. Informative signs provide directions, street names, speed limits, one-way streets, distance, nearest convenience facility, turn permissibility, and so on. Warning signs warn of work in process, diversions, traffic lights, stop sign, lane constraints, road block, weight limit, height limit, and so on. For drivers and pedestrians alike, they serve purpose to facilitate traffic, reduce inconvenience, reduce traffic jam, manage blockage and congestion, provide mental peace, and all in all are very helpful. In fact, I find proper signage so helpful — and this is not just limited to roads, but also in public areas like parks, hospitals, bus and railway stations, airports — that I feel instant gratification for that designer who decided to put a sign where he did in case I find one exactly when I need one.

In USA I’ve found signs to be absolutely well placed. Almost as if someone is reading my thoughts and the moment I feel I need directions, a sign happens to be right there as soon as I look up. This, unfortunately, hasn’t been the case in India. Indeed, while they are absolutely important to avoid unnecessary U-turns and save fuel cost and traffic congestion, I doubt anyone in Indian municipalities — which are responsible bodies for this kinds of works — pays any iota of attention to them. There are many problems:

  1. Major issue is that there aren’t just signs where there obviously should be, like fork in the road or a flyover or traffic junction or closed road.
  2. Content of signs leaves enough to be desired
    1. First, there is a issue of font size. There is hardly any standard for any sensible font size which can be read by driver is who driving at or below permissible speed limit. More often than not, it’s too small that you need to be parked to be able to read.
    2. There appears to be is no standardization on sign language too. Often for temporary signs (for construction work, for example, which in Indian case, temporarily last for up to couple of years) signs are not phrases but full sentence. Combine that will small font size and you are predestined to be unable to read it.
  3. Biggest issue is of placement
    1. While vehicles are permitted on all lanes, sign is placed exclusively to cater to lane nearest to it, even when it is applicable to all lanes.
    2. Sign is too close to the point where decision based on that information can be made e.g. you are already on flyover when sign says where this flyover goes and where road below does, or sign on left lane is so close to junction that moving to left lane at that point is impossible, or speed-breaker sign is after speed-breaker.
    3. Sign is hidden behind an advertisement poster or an overgrown tree
    4. Sign has moved/shifted/turned by forces of nature and time or is misplaced in the first place where it points to direction which is wrong is vague (arrow marks the street where there isn’t any). This is specifically bad of places like Bangalore where concept of perpendicular road crossing is rare and you’ve multiple roads crossing at odd angles.

None of this, of course, matters to traffic police should they decide to cite you for violation. You may have driven on a road couple of kilometers before you see a speed-limit sign (if you do, despite above) yet you are expected to somehow know that and not exceed that. You may come across a traffic junction and keep looking if and where is the signal for you, for it’s either placed at strange angle or is behind a tree. Blind turns and road conditions ensures that one may drive at full speed only on roads where one has driven few times. Do not expect speed-breaker or turn sign will warn you. You will have to remember that. That and that pothole which is just there unannounced ready to engulf you with your car.

And improper signage is not just small annoyances. I personally have wasted quite a lot fuel and time on missing a turn or driving on a flyover when I am not supposed to. Subsequent course correction adds to unnecessary traffic congestion and caused road rage. Compared to investment of putting useful, readable, properly placed signs, returns on overall fuel, time, accident saving, and public convenience is expected to be high. I do not have numbers with me but I’d expect them to have one of highest return-on-investment for any public expenditure work. Yet, there is no future where I envision this will happen any time far.

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