Posted in Travel

Rage Against the Road Signs

Buffalo road sign at Delta Junction, Alaska
Image by Arthur Chapman via Flickr

“Please take care whilst overtaking.”

For the next few miles, I’m too busy thinking up less pompous alternatives to “whilst” to pay much attention to my driving technique.  (Any passing motorist from The Plain English Society would throw up their hands in horror at this road sign – never a good move behind the wheel of a car.)

Some distance north, another sign urges further caution: “Better late than never. Don’t speed.”

What nagging fishwife has been let loose in the signage department today? Whatever next?  “Driving like that won’t get you there any faster, will it?”

These aggravating signs are not confined to English roads.  A half-term trip to Scotland yields some prime examples. Driving out of Tyndrum, an area in which my mobile phone has no signal for some miles, I am implored to “Don’t text while driving – don’t risk it!” Chance would be a fine thing. On the M9 near Perth, I am bizarrely urged to “Think Bike!” – even though bikes aren’t allowed on motorways.  Heading home, as we near the border with England, we are advised to “Plan ahead – visit trafficscotland”.  Surely it would have made more sense to promote this service to visitors entering Scotland, rather than those about to leave?

I really question the value of these new motorway signs, whose big black gantries sprang up all over the country a few years ago, in a flurry of pre-recession investment by the Ministry of Transport.  A civil engineer friend enlightened me when I wondered why so many cables were being laid alongside the motorway.

“The new driver information system,” he advised. “They’ll reduce road rage by keeping motorists informed.  It’s a good thing.”

Well, so far, they’ve not improved my mood.  The  only traffic-related messages I’ve seen on them have borne no relevance to my journey.  Each time I see them looming, my heart sinks, assuming they are preparing me for an imminent traffic jam. But driving from Bath to Bristol, they inform me of road closures in Devon.  Heading from Bristol to Bath, pile-ups on the M25 seems to be their main concern.  It’s as if the person responsible for updating the signs nationwide regularly drops their box of messages and inadvertently muddles them up, with the result that each message is input in the wrong location.  As I furrow my brow on the M4, are Devon drivers and M25 motorists puzzling over hold-ups affecting my route?

Then two weeks ago, after joining the M4 at Junction 19, for a single-hop journey home from Junction 18, I finally came across a message that was meaningful to me:  “Junction 18 closed – one night only – tonight!” The tone was proud and celebratory, as if this were a special offer and a cause for rejoicing.  Too late to change my route, I had to sail helplessly past the closed-off Junction 18, now cheerfully bedecked in orange traffic cones.  I had no choice but to continue London-bound, my home metaphorically receding in my rear-view mirror.  My twenty minute journey ended up taking over an hour, thanks to the unexpected diversion.

But I’ll not despair.  One day I’ll find a motorway sign that really hits the spot for me. And I know just what it will say:

“Caution: Irritating Road Sign Ahead”.


English author of warm, witty cosy mystery novels including the popular Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries and the Gemma Lamb/St Bride's School series. Novels published by Boldwood Books, all other books by Hawkesbury Press. Represented by Ethan Ellenberg Literary Agents. Founder and director of the Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival. Course tutor for Jericho Writers. UK Ambassador for the Alliance of Independent Authors. Lives and writes in her Victorian cottage in the heart of the beautiful Cotswold countryside.

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