Jeremy on: road signs
There's a sign on the northbound carriageway of the M40 which says ‘Spray Possible'. I don't know how much it cost to erect such a thing, but it was a complete waste of money, because in June, on a lovely sunny day, spray is, in fact, impossible.
Of course, on a wet day in February, spray is very possible. But why is it worse at this spot than anywhere else? And why the sign? Which in really heavy rain would be invisible. Because of all the spray.
There are other signs which annoy me. There's one near where I live advising passing motorists that there may be deer ahead. Absolutely. That's a possibility. But deer these days are everywhere. So why clutter up the roadside with a sign at that particular point?
Falling rocks. Right. I see. And what am I supposed to do with this information? Speed up? In the hope that perhaps I get through the danger area as quickly as possible. Or slow down? I can't see what difference it makes, because if a 20-tonne boulder lands on your roof, it's going to ruin your day, no matter what speed you are doing. Surely, it would have been better to use whatever the sign cost on making sure the area was free from rocks that might suddenly decide that gravity does exist after all.
Other signs we don't need are those which tell us about the speed limit. We know already because we are sentient beings and we can work out what's appropriate. We don't need to be told that there's a level crossing ahead, either, because it's the kind of thing we can spot by ourselves. Same goes for roundabouts and corners and other stuff which is clearly visible to the naked eye.
But local councils and the Highways Agency simply can't get this into their thick heads and think that we need a sign for every damn thing... which is why I saw one the other day saying 'Sign Not In Use'.
You also get signs saying 'New Road Layout Ahead' which sit there for a decade. Until they are hidden from view by other signs telling pedestrians which way to look and when you can park and where you can't stop and how the lane is closed to ease congestion. It's hectoring and it's hateful and it's mad.
And it's frigging expensive, because, to demonstrate their eco-ness, councils are now erecting illuminated signs powered by windmills and solar cells. Those things are upwards of 10 grand a pop. All so we can be told that, soon, we may fall into a harbour.
The only signs we really need are those telling us which road goes where. And overhead gantries on the motorway, but only in theory...
In theory, it makes sense that we are kept apprised of traffic conditions ahead. Often I wonder whether it would be better to enter London on the M4 or the M40, and it's jolly useful having a dot-matrix sign that can be programmed in an instant to keep me apprised of blockages and hold-ups.
Unfortunately, when there are no emergencies worth reporting, they are used to broadcast information that's no use at all, such as how long it'll take to get to the next junction.
How can someone in a control centre possibly know that? Because the time it takes to cover distance on a motorway depends on whether you are driving a Ferrari 458 or an articulated lorry. They may as well put up a sign telling you how much longer you have to live.
It gets worse, because during the firemen's strike, motorists were told by these signs to take extra care. But they didn't say, when the strike was over, that it was OK once more to go like hell. In the run-up to Christmas, we were told not to drink and drive. But the signs don't say that any more. So, plainly, we now can.
More recently, they've been used to give us a weather update. Just yesterday, one had been programmed to say ‘Snow Forecast Tomorrow'. So what? In a country the size of Britain, even the slowest driver in the worst car will have completed
his journey before tomorrow.
There was another one I saw this morning. ‘Have You Prepared Your Car For Winter?' it said. Nope. I rather hope Mercedes did that before I bought it. But at least this message did get me thinking. Because if these signs are going to be used - even when there is no emergency ahead - surely the government agency responsible could come up with something a bit better than a load of Orwellian guff about the weather and how long it will take us to get to Warwick.
We could be told which country France has invaded that day. Or how things are going on the stock markets. Or what record is at number one. Or, since motorways can be quite dreary, we could be asked to consider how our lives are going and whether we are happy.
If that sounds a bit deep, maybe we should consider using the signs to host a general-knowledge quiz. You're asked to name the capital of Portugal as you enter the motorway. And you get the answer as you leave.
This could even be tailored to take into account regional differences. People on the M8 could be asked questions about Rabbie Burns while people on the M4 could be quizzed about Pentium processors.
Or what about jokes? I'm into my stride now. Instead of telling us about strikes and hectoring us with road-safety tips, why not use the technology to make people laugh? Is it beyond the wit of man to broadcast that day's Matt cartoon from The Daily Telegraph? Or, in the school holidays, witticisms about wee-wee and poo.
This gets to the root of the problem. The government is using its shiny new signs to make us all drive slowly and sit up straight and not chew gum. The government sees itself as our moral guardian, and, as with all moral guardians, there is no room for laughter. How many jokes, for instance, are there in the Bible? None, it's just page after page after page of humourless instructions about why it's bad to steal and play with ourselves and covet another man's ox.
So, here's what I propose. We take away the job of running motorway signs from Mr Cameron's high-visibility-obsessed henchmen and give it to the nation's comedians. We could have Jack Whitehall one week and maybe Michael McIntyre the next. And, at night, when the kids are in bed, Jimmy Carr could do a turn.
Yes, of course, accidents and hold-ups would still be reported, but when the road ahead is clear, the nation's finest comic minds could be employed to set riddles and do gags.
It would, I think, be the first example, since the gladiatorial sword and sandal days of Rome, when a government decided to do something to make its people a little bit happier. And I think we'd all like that.