Everywhere A Sign

By John Carr, NMA Massachusetts Activist

Last time I wrote about disregarding nuisance stop signs and grumbled about the trend to post too many signs.

Why do we have so many signs? The problem goes beyond control freaks abusing power. There are a thousand stories. Here is a typical one.

I-91 north of Springfield, Massachusetts has a sharp curve at the I-391 interchange and Connecticut River crossing. The design speed abruptly drops from 70 mph to 50 mph without any obvious change in the road. To the average driver, it still looks like a high-speed superhighway. That is understood to be a bad design practice.

When local media report on the inevitable pattern of accidents they interview a spokesman for the state highway department who says it’s not our fault, we posted a 50 mph speed limit. That’s nonsense. Traffic engineers know that traffic speed is based on drivers’ perception of the road, not numbers on signs. A road that misleads drivers is badly designed. Unfortunately this is not well understood by the public.

The sole purpose of the 50 mph speed limit is to allow the state to deny liability for a badly designed road.

This doesn’t apply only to public relations. Lawyers advise agencies to regulate as much as possible. You’re a lot more likely to get sued for putting up too few signs than too many signs. If you show the plaintiff disregarded even one sign you’re a long way towards showing an accident wasn’t legally your fault.

Wave the magic speed limit wand and it’s not your fault. There may be more accidents, but they aren’t your fault any more.

Post stop signs where they don’t belong and you get more accidents and they aren’t your fault any more.

Paint a crosswalk on a busy street and you get more pedestrian injuries and they aren’t your fault any more.

When I grew up in Connecticut the major roads were “legally closed.” Travel at your own risk. That is the trump card of signs. The state disclaims all liability. It’s your own fault for leaving your house.

Such policies come when we put overly risk averse people in charge. They benefit from regulation by reducing their own legal or public relations exposure. Most of the cost falls on others.

Over-regulation is not merely a nuisance.

It is often counterproductive even by the standards of those promoting it. A few weeks ago, I wrote about the no right turn sign that increased right turns. Next time I’ll give some safety-related examples.

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