On the road to clarity

In the case of road signs, design has a crucial role, it can even make the difference between life and death. Peter Hall follows the progress of sign design in the US

The worst car crash I’ve ever seen happened a few streets away from my apartment in Brooklyn. At the intersection of North Ninth Street and Driggs Avenue. A pick-up truck hammered into the side of a minivan carrying five passengers.

When I arrived on the scene, the truck and driver were largely unscathed, but the minivan lay on the road, its wing crumpled like tinfoil and the passengers trapped inside. The emergency services had descended and firemen were starting up a chainsaw to cut a hole in the metal to extract the injured bodies.

The cause of the collision wasn’t clear, but I heard someone mention that the intersection was missing a stop sign. Either the truck or minivan driver had been under the false impression that he had the right of way.

It occurred to me that here was a rare example of a piece of graphic design actually playing a life-saving, or at least, injury- preventing role. Road sign design is one of those crucial parts of the urban plan.

It is also one of those areas of design where the UK is, excuse the pun, streets ahead of the US. On leaving New York by car, it quickly becomes apparent that there is an utter lack of consistency in road signs across the country. Unlike Jock Kinneir and Margaret Calvert’s classic 1960s sign system, their “corporate identity for Britain”, the US road signs were developed piecemeal over the years, and remain a morass of conflicting standards, styles and colours, varying dramatically from state to state.

Despite the fact that for 85 years we have known that people read lower case letters faster than uppercase letters, almost all US road guide and street signs are printed in upper case. An additional hindrance to legibility emerged this decade with the introduction of new high-reflective materials for US road signs.

While the letters were much brighter, a 1994 Federal study revealed that the fancy new materials, when combined with the 40-year-old highway sign font (known as Highway Series) at night-time, resulted in a blurring effect. Rather like ink trapping, the closed-in spaces in the letterforms fill up under the glare of a headlight, reducing their visibility.

Problems like this prompted the New York-based design group Meeker & Associates to team up in the mid-1990s with a testing centre at Pennsylvania State University in a privately-funded effort to develop a replacement typeface.

Meeker based the typeface on the Highway Series font, opened up the ink traps, made the descenders and ascenders short (after Kinneir’s British Transport font) and emerged with a characterful font they called, pleasantly, Clearview. Working with test signs, they found that at night drivers recognised town names set in Clearview from considerably greater distances than those set in Highway Series.

But getting the country to adopt it is no easy feat. In these Gingrichian times, it is difficult to get government money for any design work other than weapons development, and while Clearview has scored points with the Federal Highway Administration for legibility and recognition, a costly nationwide implementation is not about to happen.

A few states have begun testing new signs set in Clearview and, with the right prodding, it may become more widespread. But the Feds just don’t have the resources or power to install new signs across the nation, or to face the potential lawsuits resulting from “accidents caused by new signs” in this litigation-happy culture.

It’s almost impossible, at the same time, to prove that accidents are being caused by the old signs. According to Philip Garvey, the researcher who tested Clearview, there is no hard data relating accidents to poorly designed or even misplaced road signs, since it is difficult to eliminate the possibility of driver error. On the other hand, notes the Clearview team, it just takes a little common sense to deduce that a clear, consistent and quickly recognised signing system improves traffic flow and reduces the likelihood of erratic vehicle manoeuvres.

“Any additional time you have to respond to something helps,” says Garvey. “Besides, in central Pennsylvania, where I live, if you miss an exit off the highway, it’s another 15 miles to the next one, which adds 30 miles to your journey.”

A rethink of the chaotic US signing systems seems to me to be long overdue. I was riding in a taxi earlier this year on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway when my driver, named Jesus, missed the exit ramp. Unperturbed, he pulled over into the emergency lane and began backing up into the oncoming traffic. I began to wish that a sign, even one from above, had given him clearer directions.

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