How closed is “closed”?

Brookfield, Massachusetts officials posted a fake bridge closed sign to keep nonresidents from using an open bridge.

MassDOT said they should take the sign down. That was unusual. The DOT hates to tell towns “no”, even though policing sign use is part of its job. Maybe there’s one guy in the Worcester office who let this get on his nerves. It often comes down to what one person cares about.

I used to work near a fake closed sign in Bedford, Massachusetts. The road was open, but the town didn’t want me using its shortcut.

I live near a fake “not a through street” sign in Newton. It’s on a through street which is kept in poor condition so residents don’t have to suffer outsiders passing by their houses. (This is Staniford Street, the site of the “gated community” turn prohibition sign I wrote about a few years ago. I encourage you to do laps around the block on your motorcycle at 3 AM.)

A purpose of sign standards is to provide a uniform meaning so we don’t have to guess whether closed means “fall to your death” or “xenophobic residents”.

But from City Councilors’ point of view the purpose of signs is to reward voters.

The problem is distantly related to the “tragedy of the commons“. Posting an unwarranted sign might have some effect on traffic locally, but it dilutes the message so every one of those thousands of other signs has a little less effect. If every road is “closed” with stop signs at every intersection, drivers are going to act as if there were no signs at all. If every road is posted 10 or 20 or 30 mph too slow… we all know how that worked out.

The “signs are toys” attitude is why adult supervision is so important. By law the hierarchy goes local politicians, city engineer, state DOT, federal DOT. Each of those is responsible for making sure the previous party follows the rules.

The Federal Highway Administration, responsible for watching over states, is no better than MassDOT is watching over towns. Sometimes they’ll get an itch to go after something small, like the Connecticut Division telling Connecticut DOT not to change the wheelchair symbol from roman to italic. At least the Connecticut Division Administrator responded to my email. My reports of illegal acts in Massachusetts haven’t gotten a response in 15 years, since the last guy who cared retired.

The opinions expressed in this post belong to the author and do not necessarily represent those of the National Motorists Association or the NMA Foundation. This content is for informational purposes and is not intended as legal advice. No representations are made regarding the accuracy of this post or the included links.

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