If there’s one thing we expect of road signs, it’s for them to be clear and accurate. If they say ‘no entry’, they should mean no entry, and if they’re directing us somewhere, they should point in the right direction and to the place they specify.
When something as instructional as a road sign is wrong, it surprises and intrigues us. Should it end up shared on social media, it quickly becomes the subject of all kinds of derision.
A recent example of a botched road sign highlights that even though the intention of it might have been clear, the fact that it was incorrect leaves it open to criticism and derision, especially as a lot of people notice it on social media.
Don’t lead me this way!
Last week, BBC Oxford tweeted a picture of a new road sign introduced to the A34, with a mistake that most locals would spot a mile off.
A new A34 sign to Witney has a mistake. Can you spot it? pic.twitter.com/9DFNK4O4We
— BBC Radio Oxford (@BBCOxford) January 22, 2018
The town of Witney had suddenly acquired an ‘h’ in its name, leading to plenty of Twitter teasing from certain groups, much of which related to the late singer Whitney Houston.
How will I know…when it's been fixed? pic.twitter.com/VB3ybpgsTo
— Helen Bristow (@HelsBels2525) January 22, 2018
How embarrassing, it's all over Twhitter!
— Witney Town Council (@WitneyTownCounc) January 22, 2018
The sign was not right, and nor was it OK in the eyes of Highways England; it was quickly removed, with the organisation saying it was reviewing its quality control processes.
Out to lunch
Bungled road signs are not confined to the Twitter era, of course. Going back nearly a decade now, one of the most peculiar messages ever to appear on a road sign was found in Swansea in October 2008. Though this was really too early for social media to have got onto it, the sign was a result of online miscommunication.
The English section of the sign was clear enough – it was informing HGV drivers that the area was for residential access only. Welsh speakers, however, would have been confused by the supposed ‘translation’, which was somebody explaining that they were not in the office.
It seems that the sign was a result of somebody emailing text to be translated, receiving a Welsh out-of-office reply and assuming that to be the translation. Perhaps an understandable mix-up, although really this emphasises the importance of clear communication online.
Not playing ball
In October last year, mathematician Matt Parker produced another piece of online road sign controversy with his observations about the Highways Agency’s symbol for football stadia.
Parker noted that the current symbol is geometrically incorrect, as it is impossible to make a sphere entirely out of hexagons. In his video, which has been watched more than 250,000 times to date, he points out that the darker hexagons should really be pentagons. To raise awareness of this, he started a petition for the Department for Transport to change the symbol for future signs.
The petition received over 20,000 signatures, which was enough for the government to issue a response. The motion was rejected, although the Department for Transport clearly didn’t watch the video properly as part of its argument is the cost of replacing existing signs – something Parker clearly says is not part of his campaign and he only suggests the change for future signs.
Signs are a vital component of road travel, but if they are wrong or unclear, the only thing they’re likely to symbolise is ridicule over the internet.