Monday, December 27, 2004

OBEY - the sign said so!

Digital "informational" highway signs line the roads from Lake Tahoe to San Francisco. Their intent is to convey timely information about problems up ahead, and when they do that, it's great. "CHAINS REQUIRED AHEAD" is an excellent thing to have a sign about. I even appreciate early warning about accidents, lane closures and so on.

But this weekend there was nothing newsworthy to convey. At least, nothing that our mysterious Signmaster knew about. So did the signs stay blank, conserving electricity and sparing drivers unnecessary distraction? Heavens no! Instead, they displayed generic public-service messages. A couple of common examples:

OBEY THE LAW - DRIVE SAFELY

OBEY THE SPEED LIMIT


There's something disturbingly Orwellian about regularly seeing the word "OBEY" overheard in bright 6 inch tall capital letters. "OBEY THE LAW" is worse. Who is the intended audience for these signs? Are there a great many potential scofflaws who will be dissuaded by the presence of an "OBEY THE LAW" sign"?

This is just the latest example of a disturbing trend - random hectoring in semi-public spaces. CalTrain installed message signs and vocal announcement capability at most stations recently, and the one unifying theme of all the announcements is that they are totally unhelpful. For instance:

"If the ticket machine is malfunctioning, please report it immediately."

"Watch for suspicious activity."

If announcement speakers and billboard signs are always saying something, it's much less likely anybody will pay attention when they are saying something important.

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