"See What?"

There are ---ahem--- more adult ways to give explicit directions, the Danes, as usual, are WAY far ahead of the rest of us!


To expand a bit on the earlier The Multi-tasking Myth, we might call this the Explicit Direction Myth. The Explicit Direction Myth claims that providing explicit direction improves performance. How that direction is provided might matter more than anything. If I must refer to an ink-blot of a plan or unfold a passenger compartment-sized map---or, take my eyes off the road --- to access the information, explicit direction might well undermine my performance.

So, why all the signage? Years ago, I served on the Citizen's Advisory Committee for the City of Portland's Traffic Engineering Bureau. This bureau held responsibility for ensuring that signs were posted to reflect ordinances. These ordinances conflicted with each other, and fully complying with this aspiration would have required posting no fewer than twenty signs per city block. Individual engineers used their own best judgment, which meant that some neighborhoods had darned close to twenty signs per block while others had almost none. Us citizens advising the bureau noted the inconsistency, and recommended that fewer signs would be more effective than more signs. This advice pissed off the Bureau Chief, who almost-patiently explained that the absence of signs exposed the City to risk of lawsuits. (I should have figured something so danged stupid would have to be a risk avoidance strategy!)

We seem as a society to have acquired an advanced case of The Erma Bombeck Disease, as described by the late syndicated columnist Erma Bombeck, this disorder is a compulsion, caused by spending too much time with children, that forces one to lean over and cut their dining partner's meat for them. We dare not trust another's judgment, so they never development any judgment. We look around for explicit direction instead.

In a recent discussion of Soviet-style Five Year Planning, someone noted that the one thing those explicit plans preserved was the commissar's role as arbiter, judge, jury, and (sometimes) executioner, because when (not if!) the explicit plan went awry, those "following" it would have to seek judgement, dispensation, (or contrive some way to spin or cloak the result), and each of these responses elevated and preserved not the proletariat, who's fault was assumed if the plan failed, but the boss. Traffic signs seem to produce similar results. They don't make us safer, but they do assert authority. ... ... Or do they?

Judging from the performance of most drivers (including me!), speed limits are interpreted as "posted speed plus five mph," STOP signs mean "slow down enough to shift into first gear before proceeding," and YIELD signs actually mean "YIELD (to the temptation to cut through opposing traffic)!" Maybe something inside us resists explicit direction, and we become bratty kids rather than more responsible adults under its influence.

One final word on the subject. Last October, a former roommate of my son was killed in a truck-bicycle collision. As a result of this --- and several other --- accidents, the City of Portland started painting green boxes on the pavement at intersections. These boxes provide space for bicycles and focus drivers' attention ON THE ROAD, rather than away from it. An example that maybe it IS possible to teach an old hound dog a new trick or two.

One final short video which better explains the Explicit Direction Myth. There's always something more than we expect!


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