The sign of our times is that the highway signs of our time are behind the times. It is a sign that the roadway signs of our time must be more time-sensitive: that is, updated to our modern my-way-or-highway sensibility.
For a week I drove between Belfast and Bangor to visit my loved one at the hospital, Eastern Maine Medical Center, at the far end of Bangor near where I lived for a while a few decades ago. I became familiar with certain milestones and landmarks along the way, sometimes looking sideways to catch a glimpse of an historic home overlooking the water of the Atlantic Ocean or the Penobscot River.
Of course one must also keep watch on the signs along the road that require each and every vehicle facing that direction to keep within the speed limit and thereby avoid police pursuit, heartless arrest and timeout incarceration.
Nevertheless the speed limit is only a number, as in 25 mph, i.e., twenty-five miles per hour at the utmost.
Where I grew up in Michigan near the car capital of Detroit, the rule of thumb was that you drove five miles an hour faster than the numerical speed limit. If the sign said "Speed Limit 35 mph," you drove with the needle on your speedometer at the number 40 – considered to be a reasonable excess insufficient to prompt a police officer to chase and nab you for breaking the law. You might even have a possibly plausible excuse: “Hey, the speedometer in my car was at 35, so the speedometer must be wrong, not me!”
Here in Maine, however, drivers pay no attention to the numbers whatsoever. Each car or truck driver simply keeps up with the vehicle immediately ahead, no one knowing if the lead driver does or does not realize what the heck he or she may be doing in terms of miles per hour or the applicable speed limit. If the leader is driving too fast, everybody is driving too fast – so what? Who is responsible? Who is to blame? Nobody.
Should a NASCAR wannabe race past others to take the lead and take off like a rocket down the road, that speed demon will soon come to the next town and have to slow down. Those behind will then catch up. Of course, when you catch up, you may be tempted to run your front bumper into the speed demon’s back bumper, clearly letting him or her know that racing between towns will not save you any time in the long run … or maybe just a few seconds.
If you are driving alone, and if there is no one in front of you as far as the eye can see, you are free to fly as you wish. But go even slower, thus avoiding giving cops hiding behind the bushes an excuse to chase you down and throw you in their clink.
Still, the speed limit signs are the same as always and easily forgettable. Who notices? Who follows the law by reading a number on a sign?
As you approach a town, the signs may read "45 mph," then "35 mph coming up soon," says one sign before the 35 mph sign marking the border, finally another two signs, 25 mph ahead and 25 mph. Does anyone think to slow down again and again till you hit the middle of town?!
Times have changed. It is time for a new solution. As a longtime writer with irrelevant experience and inexplicable expertise, I suggest that we experiment with signs along the roadway from Belfast to Bangor and back that speak to the approaching driver in plain English. Signs should tell drivers what to do.
Forget 45 mph. How about: "HUMAN BEINGS AHEAD!"
35 mph, too indefinite. Substitute: "DO NOT HIT HUMANS!" It is probably understood by most drivers, as well as dog walkers, that canines are not safe running the road in a 35 mph zone, either.
Instead of 25 mph speed zone ahead: "SLOW WAY DOWN!" Then, perhaps in smaller letters: "STOP – BUY SOMETHING."
On the other side of town, signs may jump to 35 mph, then maybe 45 mph and not far ahead up to 50 or 55 mph. The numbers should be changed to words.
Rather than 35 mph: "WAKE UP – MOVE ON!"
Replace 45 mph with "GET OUTA HERE!"
50 or 55 mph says nothing. Just put up a sign that says "SCRAM!"
As for signs on I-95 with speed limits up to 65 then 75 or 85 and finally 95 mph on I-95, KISS them goodbye: "HEAVEN OR HELL, NEXT EXIT."
Alas, as road signs have fallen behind the times, traffic lights have tried to keep up with all of the options in today’s world, yet failed miserably and maddeningly.
You are driving through Bangor, and you stop at a red light. You wait … and you wait. It used to be that you were just waiting for cars going through the green light on the road crossing in front of you. Thirty seconds or so, you got the green light. Not anymore.
The cars on the right have a green light to turn left. Then the cars to the left across the road have a green light to turn left. Full green light, cars turn right or go straight through. But you can turn right on a red light anyway, right?
Cars next to you get a green light to turn left, and cars facing you from the other side get a green light to turn left.
All the traffic lights go red. Walk signs are a green light for pedestrians going in one direction or another. Soon they will enable jaywalking as well.
And it’s not over yet. Before you know it there will be Walk or Trot signs for pets, wild(ish) animals, bikes, skateboarders, hitchhikers, scooters, whatever – perhaps along different paths. How long will the red lights stay red (and prevent you from going anywhere, let alone going forward)?
Soon those on charity walks and charity bike rides will be able to make their way through the city with Walk signs always on and red lights for all vehicles for six to eight hours (or as long as it takes). Forget the green light: you’re not going anywhere. Don’t use up all the minutes on your cell phone.
One stoplight after another, you get bored silly. But at last when you are through the city and beyond, you are ready to race away without a glance at the signs with numbers on them. Get Out of Here NOW! Don’t stop until you see RED!
Drive safely. Better safe than sorry.
Fritz Lyon is a writer and professional public relations pundit residing in Belfast.