Sign Pollution

This week I was on the road in Ohio. It was a week of gray, rainy weather, so my mood wasn’t great. Still, I was struck by how ugly our state looks from the perspective of our interstates, due in significant part to the overabundance of signs that line the highways.

IMG_1891We’ve got a sign pollution problem. Speed limit signs and traffic alert signs. Signs stating that you need to wear your seat belt because it’s a state law. Signs unnecessarily announcing “caution overhead hazard” when there is a bridge looming immediately ahead. Signs advising that fines are doubled in work zones, mile markers, “no edge lines” signs, exit signs, rest area signs, “emergency stopping only” signs, signs listing every fast food outlet, gas station, and hotel at the exit that is approaching, signs warning that bridges ice over before roadways, merge markers, and electronic billboards about missing adults, among countless others.

Ohio may not have the striking scenic beauty of, say, the Grand Tetons or the coastline at Big Sur, but the rolling farmland is pleasant — if you could see it without all of the ugly, institutional signs that seemingly appear every 100 yards or so. (And don’t even get into how much those signs cost.)

When I was a kid, First Lady Lady Bird Johnson launched an “America the Beautiful” campaign that sought to minimize the number of billboards on highways and their ability to block the view of the countryside. There also was a powerful commercial featuring “Iron Eyes” Cody as a proud native American who sheds a tear at the trash thrown from a passing car, which made me into a lifelong opponent of littering. Ironic that now it’s our government, with its zeal to post signs for every conceivable reason, that is the offender.

Pondering A Seemingly Pointless Electronic Sign

Every day I drive to work on I-670, a road that connects the I-270 highway that circles Columbus with downtown.  A few years ago they erected an electronic road sign above the westbound lanes, the kind that lets some unknown person change the message on the sign if they choose to do so.  In that sense, it’s like the sign that talked to Steve Martin in the movie L.A. Story.

I don’t understand why someone concluded we need this variable sign.  Nine mornings out of 10 the sign reports that it will take exactly the same, minimal amount of time to reach I-71 and other upcoming destinations.  On the tenth day, the sign might state that it will take a slightly longer period to drive the mile and a half to the next exit.  Is there anything to indicate that that kind of information on the sign influences any driving decisions or helps traffic flow?  Does anyone actually veer off I-670 and onto side roads because the sign is advising that it will take two minutes longer to reach their destination?  And, how many of those people would have veered off after they observed slowed or stopped traffic up ahead, regardless of whether the sign was there or not?

One time Kish and I were driving past the sign and it was filled with information about a missing adult male who was driving a Mercedes with a particular license plate.  We wondered precisely what we were supposed to do in response to that message.  Quickly grab a paper and pen and jot down the license plate?  Hope that the car in question was driving directly in front of us when we saw the sign?  It hardly seems like sound traffic safety to have drivers of cars speeding by at 65 miles an hour fumbling for a pen and paper to try to write down a license plate number.  And if we aren’t supposed to do that, what’s the point?

I imagine a large part of the decision to buy the sign was that some people wanted Columbus to seem more like, well, L.A.  Guess what?  It isn’t — and most of us are very happy for that.  We don’t need signs to tell us how long it will take to get to an exit that is only a few miles away, and we don’t need pointless signs to consume tax dollars and clutter our highways.