Home > Commentary, Rant > What drives me mad: signs that tell lies …

What drives me mad: signs that tell lies …

… and those who write them.

I’m driving along the A-something-or-other, a couple of hours into a longish journey, and my tongue begins to feel too big for my mouth. A cup of tea would go down very nicely – and aha! what’s this? A sign that announces

1/4 MILE

But when I reach that next layby a quarter of a mile down the road, what do I see? Nada. Nothing, that is, except a litter of styrofoam teacups strewn around a torn-apart-by-foxes black bin bag. Grrr.

I’m driving through the city towards my destination, aware that my nearside front tyre has a slow puncture. The rain’s pouring down and the last thing I want to do is grovel in the gutter and change the wheel. But I can tell by the way the car handles that it’s getting pretty flat. Suddenly, there on the central reservation, I spot a wooden sign on a trestle that reads


Great! That will do nicely. I turn right at the next junction and drive gingerly for two miles along a pot-holed road through an industrial estate past chainlink fences and barking devil-dogs, until I reach a large Nissen hut whose big double doors, clearly padlocked, bear the legend TRIPLE-A TYRES SHUT. My blood pressure rises.

I’m driving along a country lane, business done, spare wheel fitted, and on my way home at last. It’s dark now, and still raining hard, but I’ve less than a mile to go. I round a corner at a modest speed, to be confronted by a huge sheet of floodwater. No warning, and no hope of stopping in time; so I grit my teeth, cross my fingers, hold my breath, and plough on through. Not deep this time, thank goodness (sometimes it’s more than three feet). I’m past the water, and in a minute I’ll be home and dry.

A day or two later I’m on my way home again, driving along the same country lane, but a couple of hundred yards before the bend, gleaming in the late-afternoon sun, there’s a sign that reads FLOOD.
It’s one of those county council roadsigns that folds away when it’s not needed, so clearly it’s been opened out by the council because the road is still flooded. I don’t want to chance it again – you never know. So I do a three-point turn, make the fifteen-mile detour and arrive home in time to bump into my next-door neighbour on his way back from walking his dog, and who tells me that in fact the water had subsided earlier in the day and was back where it belonged: in the river. They’d just not bothered to close the sign. Blood pressure has my eyes out on metaphorical stalks now. OK, I realise that none of this is serious. It’s just me being irritated by inconveniences.

* * *

But in fact there is a serious side to it.

First, there’s the fact that it’s symptomatic of people’s rampant self-obsession, their “I’m alright Jack” lack of care for the rest of society. All the while they’re open for business, fine, let the signs bring in the punters. But why bother to walk a few hundred yards to take the sign down when they’re closed? Let’s face it, it’s no skin off their noses if we’re taken in – there’ll be plenty more mugs tomorrow.

Second – and much more troubling – is the “cry wolf” factor. One gets used to the “Flood” sign being open, and one learns to disregard it. But every year someone ignores the sign, meets the water, and floats off downriver. Every year the fire brigade has to rescue someone who has been lulled into false confidence by a sign that is known to tell lies. How long before someone drowns?


Update 7 February 2014: ‘Dramatic rescue of family trapped in flood waters in Barcombe Mills’ http://www.theargus.co.uk/news/10995197.Dramatic_rescue_of_family_trapped_in_flood_waters_in_Barcombe_Mills/?ref=var_0, from the Brighton Argus; and ‘Family trapped in Barcombe Mills flood are rescued’: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-26086572, from BBC News Online.

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