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Yes, Children Are At Play, but Do Drivers Care?

Two decades ago, in one of National Lampoon’s humorous Totally True Facts book, a road sign with the following instructions was photographed: SLOW CHILDREN ON ROAD WITH NO SHOULDERS. The editors’ sardonic caption commented that the politically correct terminology was probably “handicapped.”

This silly, over-the-top example illustrates a real problem facing both traffic managers: that of superfluous or unclear signage. On the one hand, signs are an affordable, easy way to reduce harm: improvements in traffic signage boast the highest cost-benefit ratio of any highway-safety enhancement, according to the Transportation Research Board. Yet too many signs can produce precisely the opposite outcome. Cautions the Federal Highway Administration, in its Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices: "The use of warning signs should be kept to a minimum as the unnecessary use of warning signs tends to breed disrespect for all signs.”

One particularly salient character in the to-sign-to-not-to-sign battle is the CHILDREN AT PLAY warning. A common sight in residential neighborhoods around the country, this yellow notification (accompanied by the sweet silhouette of a frolicking child) is a favorite among parents, replica watches who believe that it will make drivers slow down and stay alert for kids – who are, after all, the least predictable of pedestrians, given to darting out after errant balls and runaway partners in Tag. DOTs across the U.S. report that requests to install CHILDREN AT PLAY signs is one of their more common petitions – and who can argue with parents wanting to do everything possible to keep their kids safe?

But the jury is out on whether signs such as CHILDREN AT PLAY or DEAF CHILD actually yield the desired results. According to a 2007 report by the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, “There is no evidence that special warning signs of this sort reduce driver speeds or crash rates.” In the first instance, such signs give drivers no clear and enforceable guidance – are they to slow down? Stop? When will children be playing? All the time or only on weekends? Secondly, a CHILD AT PLAY sign may provide a false sense of security to parents – and to children, for that matter – which replica watches might actually increase risk. The presence of signs in some areas can also give the false impression that there are no children in areas without such signs.

The official DOT documents for many states – including Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and California – intentionally avoid endorsing these signs; Maine’s DOT website reads, “…the driving public does not react favorably or positively to these [special warning] signs in most cases….Knowing that these signs are generally ineffective, MaineDOT does NOT advise the use of these signs....” And Alaska expressly prohibits their installation.

CHILDREN AT PLAY signs wax and wane in popularity. Many opt to skip the controversy entirely, and simply post generic SLOW signs at residential, school or pedestrian-heavy intersections.



 
 
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In order to be effective, signs have to be instantly recognizable. Can you discern what this sign is trying to say in less than the time it takes you to stop your car?
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