The street sign: one of the barriers between order and anarchy on our local streets and interstate system, and also one of the many symbols of government waste and crony capitalism.
About three years ago, some pedestrian crossing and school zone signs sporting a different shade of fluorescent yellow had replaced older traffic signs in Cook County. The argument for the new signs was that the new color made them more noticeable than the existing signs. However, once the novelty of the new color wore off, the new signs became no more noticeable than their older counterparts.
I’d forgotten about this experiment in visual semantics until I’d passed a construction crew that was replacing some highway signs on one of the roads that lead to my night job. The signs were a little over twenty years old, but still in excellent condition. The only differences between the new and old signs were the font and reflective material that is used on the new signs.
Back in 2011, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood rescinded a 2003-era mandate that required local governments to switch to new street signs using the Clearview font by 2018; signs will now be replaced near the end of their service life. This act of kindness from the feds was in response to municipal leaders who had said that the financial drain from replacing perfectly good signs did not make sense; for example, the change would have cost Milwaukee County $2 million.
This mandate however, does have its supporters, such as the American Traffic Safety Services Association and 3M – a manufacturer of the reflective material used on the new signs.
This decision by the federal government to force local governments into making a costly and unnecessary move highlights several disconnects between Washington D.C. and the rest of us.
First of all, claiming that spelling a word with different lettering will shave milliseconds off of the time that it takes to read a sign – therefore, preventing countless accidents – is from the same mentality as the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration claiming that mandatory third brake lights prevent thousands of rear-end accidents every year. Unless we had a parallel universe where these claims could be verified, such comments are best described as excuses used by bureaucrats to justify their political existence.
Second, such expensive mandates are written solely for the sake of perpetuating crony capitalism. If a police officer were to accept money from someone who was “driving fifty dollars over the speed limit,” he or she would deservedly face criminal charges. However, if a politician were to accept a few dollars for supporting a law or amendment that would help the donor or organization financially, then that act is considered to be a campaign contribution.
I remember reading a Daily Herald interview with one of the higher-ups at Safety Kleen that was printed around 1995. One of the new products that his company had planned to introduce was recycled motor oil. He admitted that this product would be unpopular, but he had bragged about how lobbyists were talking with politicians in the hope of making the use of recycled oil mandatory – just like ethanol. Creating an artificial market for an unloved and unpopular product is no different than 3M funding one of the studies that favored the street sign change.
For some reason, there are politicians who are afraid to admit that they are pro-crony.