Dust Storms May Exist

While Driving Across southern New Mexico this morning, I rolled my eyes a bit at a warning sign: “Dust Storms May Exist”. Well yeah, so might space aliens bent on beaming someone up from the desert. Reminds me of the one I see farther north: “Icy Conditions May Exist”. Are lawyers writing road signs now? Maybe charging by the letter?

Photo: quinnanya @Flickr

When I was a kid, the latter just said “Icy” but I guess people ridiculed that when it was summertime. But really, “conditions may exist”? With all the unemployed newspaper reporters out there who have the ability to be concise, they couldn’t hire just one of them at the Federal Highway Administration to help with the road signs?

How about “Dust Storm Area” or “May Be Icy”? Added advantage: both are shorter and easier to read when zooming by at 75 MPH (not to mention those who take the speed limit as a minimum).

The hazards are real, but convoluted language just doesn’t make it when you really want people to pay attention to what’s going on outside the car. It’s hard enough to get drivers to look at something besides their cell phones.

Make it quicker, highway bureaucrats. And take this as a sign that intellectual dissatisfaction may exist. Or should I say “Ire”?

64 Comments on “Dust Storms May Exist

  1. In the northeast, there are signs that read “BRIDGE FREEZES BEFORE ROAD SURFACE”. I’m not a slow take, but I’ve often been halfway across the aforementioned bridge before I could process that message. How about “BRIDGE AHEAD — MAY BE ICY”? Some years ago I watched a multi-car pileup in Austin, Texas, when a bridge was icy. There may have been a sign, but most Austinites just don’t know how to drive on slippery roads, and with all the police vehicles on the scene why didn’t one of them block traffic before the bridge to try to stop the mayhem?

  2. I had to comment about the NM dust storm signs. They actually fit New Mexico — existential phrasing makes me smile. There are many things in life that exist in our imagination, I always thought a state that had alien leanings should ride the line on what is and what isn’t….

    I have driven back and forth to Deming, NM from Lander, WY about 5 times a year for the past 4 years (parental duty). And enjoyed the signs.

  3. Ha! Your comment about the sign in New Mexico gave me a flashback. In 1976 and recently discharged from USN I was travelling through New Mexico on a cross country trip. I saw a “dust devil” moving across the desert and it intersected I-10 just as I intersected its path at about 70mph. I drove through it but it pushed my car from one side of the road to the other and back. If I had been a fraction of a second off the result would have taken me off the road. Quite exciting at the time being young and invincible. Thanks for the memory jolt.

  4. This is a symptom of something we see in many MANY places. User interface design is done by self-proclaimed designers instead of usability engineers. License agreements are written by lawyers (well, of course they are) without any consideration for whether people will actually read the text. And now you’re seeing road signs also not designed for actual usability. It’s not a new problem – back in the Victorian era, the operatic duo Gilbert & Sullivan were up against the same problem, as decisions about edits to make to their operas had to be made by the people who were performing those operas seven times a week, not by the audience member who was seeing it for the first time.

    What’s the solution? TEST THINGS. Run actual trials. Put people in driving simulators and run them past a series of road signs, then test how well they got the crucial information. Silently watch people use your app or web site and see which parts they struggle with. Controlled tests are difficult, often expensive (you might need a thousand test subjects for the road signs, maybe ten thousand to be sure), and don’t look great on the Powerpoint presentation to your boss, but they really do work wonders for true usability.

    • I have said frequently that software, etc should be checked out by a person totally unfamiliar with it. “User-friendly” should not be just for the person writing the software or instructions.

    • Problem is, in general, governments don’t seem to cotton to the idea that they should test the laws and regulations that they deem fit to subject the rest of us to, to make sure that they actually accomplish the intended purpose. They seem to be much more comfortable with the “It has been deemed from on high by people who will take great offense if you doubt their abilities and intentions, so it must be right” approach. As a computer programmer, I find this puzzling. Laws and regulations are essentially an attempt to program the behavior of people. Any computer programmer, regardless of how intelligent, able, and with the best of intentions, wrote code and failed to test it before implementation, would quickly find themselves unemployable. That this is not true in the area of lawmaking seems to be a rather large bug in the mechanisms of government. If it’s not feasible to actually test before implementing new laws or regulations (for what it’s worth, I have had computer programming situations where I, at least, couldn’t test before release), at least release them with some sort of feedback mechanism so that indications that things aren’t right, and law/regulation needs to be tweaked/debugged.

  5. Most of that comes from the Federal Highway Administration and is specified in the MUTCD / Manual for Uniform Traffic Control Devices (federal road standards), but some states/counties/municipalities don’t follow it like they should. Some states have their own manual, as well.

    Up until a few years ago, the official sign for icy bridges was BRIDGE MAY ICE IN COLD WEATHER, Now it’s BRIDGE ICES BEFORE ROAD

    I’m guessing there are people in the government who do nothing but dream up sign wording and symbols.

    Oklahoma turnpikes have a sign that says DO NOT DRIVE INTO DUST STORMS.

    • Vermont goes one better: BRIDGE FREEZES BEFORE ROAD. This covers the fact that the snow may be sticking, or turning to slush, on bridges, even when it’s melting on the road surfaces. And I like the Oklahoma sign — as someone who’s never encountered a dust storm, but is used to driving through thunderstorms and hail (the milder kind we get up north), I wouldn’t have necessarily realized how high the winds can be in a dust storm, even if I expected reduced visibility.

  6. In my job as a transportation research engineer, I have some familiarity with what text and/or symbols appear on highway signs. In response to your comments about the “May Exist” signs in New Mexico, I have two observations to respectfully offer:

    1) Yes, lawyers do have an increasing influence over what appears on signs, and it can lead to oversigning as well as sign messages that may not be as readily understood as an alternative.

    2) That said, a quick check of the phrase “May Exist” shows that it does not appear in the federal Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices or its accompanying Standard Highway Signs and Markings book. I suspect that the signs you saw are a) old enough to be from an earlier standard and haven’t yet been replaced, b) unique to New Mexico, or c) non-standard signs. My guess is that it’s the third option, but unless it’s the first option, you may not be able to blame this one on FHWA. Some other “highway bureaucrats”, on the other hand? Quite possibly.

    As always, I enjoy the newsletter and the thoughtful content. Thanks for your consistently high-quality production.

    Hope you got some chuckles from my comments. I think it’s likely they’re both b) unique to New Mexico, and c) non-standard signs. -rc

    • Oh, yes, I did enjoy your comments. There are plenty of other examples of, um, “interesting” signs, as other readers have mentioned, and they usually cause at least an eye-roll among my colleagues. And, as you’ve suggested, it would make sense to me also if these are indeed both b) and c).

  7. My wife and I always comment about the road signs. I disagree with your “May be icy” or any road sign that includes the word “May”. Ice or dangerous conditions do not need permission to form/exist. Should be “Can be icy”.

  8. As something of a “road geek”, I don’t see anything *really* wrong with the New Mexico sign (the above comment that it’s not in the MUTCD notwithstanding). I might substitute the word “Possible” for “May Exist”.

    I haven’t seen “Icy Conditions May Exist” despite living up north; then again, I *know* that bridge surfaces are likely to freeze ahead of other road surfaces. Alas, some don’t.

  9. Needlessly wordy road signs is one of my pet peeves, too. I live in Georgia, but am from the west coast, and one sign in particular bears the brunt of my ire.

    Everywhere else I’ve been a simple “$1000 fine for littering” has sufficed, but here they all say “$1000 fine for throwing trash on highway”. I’m not sure what the reasoning is, but to an outsider it looks like you expect “littering” to be too big a word to be in the general vocabulary.

    Picture: https://goo.gl/images/qtdc5B

    • Many years ago Massachusetts posted signs along US-1 that said “Fine for Littering”. Those signs always amused my mother; Oh, here’s another place where littering is just fine!

  10. If they didn’t use a qualifier, people would probably complain about NOT seeing one! I’ve heard people complain about not seeing any “Falling Rock”.

      • At the end of the street near my house (edge of town and semi-rural), there is a “deer crossing” sign with a silhouette of a deer on it. Every Christmas, some wag is guaranteed to paint a red dot at the end of his nose. Somewhere around February, they generally clean it off, only to start again next Christmas!

        I like it! -rc

        • More original, there used to be a deer crossing sign on a California highway that some talented artist had painted, adding wings to the deer. It honestly looked like an official sign, it was so well done!

  11. Laughed at your eye-rolling. It would be 110° out and we’d see a sign “Warning, ice on bridge”. So we’d feel sorry for the sign, pull over, and dumps some ice out of our cups to keep the sign from being a liar. Just doing our part to make the world a better place.

  12. I think existential weather is a New Mexico phenomenon. While I haven’t driven the boot heel enough to see the existential dust storms, I have driven the mountains and eastern plains where “Gusty winds may exist”. There’s even a YouTube video from the Handsome Family titled Gusty Winds May Exist.

    Colorado has the never-present town of “Falling Rocks” that you’re supposed to watch out for, per my Texas friend. And Arizona’s elk walk along the side of the road peering back over their ass at you from the warning signs.

  13. I have become convinced that the designers of highway signs are not native English speakers. Here in Georgetown, TX there is a sign that proceeds a hill that says “LIMITED SIGHT VIEW”. The first time I saw it I had to think about it until I was well past the Limited Sight before It occurred to me that they were trying to tell me that the hill obstructs the view. A sign saying OBSTRUCTED VIEW would have been more to the point but would have been harder to fit on the diamond shaped warning sign.

    • Here in Australia, we often have a diamond-shaped warning sign with an icon on it and no words, and then the words (“OBSTRUCTED VIEW” or whatever) in a *rectangular* sign underneath. That removes the issue of fitting things onto diamond signs, while still conveying information in words (since pictures are obnoxiously difficult to type into a search engine for people who have no idea what the sign means — that’s a separate problem altogether).

    • Um. has Captain Obvious been there? Or is Texas so flat that people don’t know that, by definition, you can’t see over a hill?

      My favorite along these lines is a Quebec graphic sign. A polygon with a sharp top angle; a car (with speed lines) going up the slope on the right, and a big exclamation point over the slope on the left. I’ve yet to figure out what that’s supposed to mean, although it seems to say “You’re going to be surprised by what’s on the other side of this hill!” In fact, about 100 feet farther on, there’s a sign which indicates a sharp left curve ahead, with a road entering from the right, and a speed of 55 kph recommended. Is one of them redundant?

  14. Regarding the comment above about seeing ice signs in the summer, we have the “BRIDGE ICES BEFORE ROAD” signs here in Ohio as well, but many of them (at least in the southwestern part of the state) are designed in two pieces with a hinge. In the late spring, the bottom piece is unscrewed from the post and folded up over the top half so that all you see is a triangular piece of metal. They stay that way until early fall.

    • I lived in Texas for many years, and remember the hinged signs about the bridge freezing before the roadway. Every Summer (about February 15th, in San Antonio) the road crews would fold the sign up, and every winter (about January 15th, again, in San Antonio) the crews would be back to fold the sign down. Someone in the Department of Highways actually calculated how much money was being spent to fold and un-fold these signs and decided that it saved money to just leave the danged things un-folded throughout the year. Very comical in September when the temp hovers around 102 degrees.

  15. Visiting England recently I saw a sign DELAYS POSSIBLE UNTIL OCTOBER.

    They’d need a REALLY full petrol tank for that. -rc

  16. For years I’ve been watching the highway near my neighborhood “Deer Xinging” sign hoping to see a Xinging deer. I’ve seen plenty of deer crossing the road (also one bear) but have yet to see a deer Xing.

    A lady wrote to our local newspaper complaining that the Deer Xinging sign was at an inconvenient point in the highway, near a curve, and could’t the police please move the sign a few miles down the road to a straighter place?

    You’re pretty silly. As we know from Xmas, the “X” is actually the Greek letter X (Chi), the first letter of the word “Christos” (the Greek word for Messiah), so Xmas literally means Christmas. Thus, the sign you refer to really means “Deer Christing” — to mark a place that prohibits atheist deer. While some have said this violates the First Amendment, it hasn’t yet been subject to court review since the secular deer can’t seem to find a lawyer who will take their case. -rc

  17. One must consider the low reading comprehsion level of some drivers. Either due to limited education or English as a second language.

    Also, some people have not traveled extensively and have had no exposure to the special conditions that can exist in parts of the country.

    Signs have to be written to the lowest common denominator. Sometimes, however, they are written by that same group.

    I fail to see how someone who is semi-literate and thus a slow reader would better understand “Icy Conditions May Exist” than “May Be Icy” when they go by at 75 mph. -rc

  18. May exist infers that someone gave it permission, no? Could, might or can exist would be more correct. But then by the time the message is digested, at speed, it probably won’t matter unless the sign were placed much further ahead than I’m used to seeing them. My favorite is “Drive children slowly”.

      • Here in MA we have a lot of “hidden drive” signs. Now why would you hide your driveway? Come home late after a long hard day and for get where you hid it. How do you get home?

        It’s not “hidden driveway” it’s “hidden drive“! It’s a scenic route that’s only available to those who are in the know. -rc

        • Yes, I spent 45 years in MA. My favorite is “Thickly Settled” — it means you’re entering an area of houses, but its meaning is hardly obvious!

          Right off the bat, I wouldn’t have guessed that. Sounds more like “Town Founded by Obliviots”. -rc

        • As a kid, I was concerned that we had to watch out for blind drivers, since we were warned when we approached their driveways. (Signs said BLIND DRIVEWAY)

  19. I love road signs and travel a lot so I have a great collection of silliness but my all-time favorite signs were seen on the Merritt Parkway in Connecticut for several years — “Depressed Storm Drains”. I am glad to report that they all finally got counseling and have all recovered from their depression. Oh, and they repaved the road.

  20. When you pay for parking here in Ireland, the machines tell you ‘Change is possible’.

    But first, you have to want to change. -rc

    • And one of my favorite signs in England, also in parking lots, was, “Have you paid and displayed?” It took awhile, and some exploration, to figure out you were supposed to go to a central machine, put in your money to get a ticket, then put the ticket in a visible location on the dashboard. Thinking of the sign still amuses me.

      Having to pay for displaying is a fine for exhibitionism, right? -rc

  21. The Colorado sign “In Case Of Flood Climb To Safety” was a direct result of the Big Thompson flood, that killed many many Big Thompson Canyon residents, including a friend’s family as they watched the flood waters “safely” from their deck 30 feet above the river. Unfortunately, the wall of water that struck soon after was 50 to 60 feet high and carried boulders as large as cars. A Colorado State Patrolman lost his life driving down that canyon with his loudspeaker warning people of the imminent wall of water — he saved numerous lives but lost his own — a real hero!

    It really is necessary to tell stupid or unaware people to save themselves! Most people in that canyon had watched flood waters from summer thunderstorms with little trepidation, after all, there were cabins and homes only a few feet above the river that had only occasionally had water approach them or actually come inside, but there wasn’t any REAL danger, was there?

    Unlike flat open areas in most states, Colorado thunderstorms over a broad area of the Rockies can ALL drain into one small canyon, normally not a problem, but a large storm cell can drop a half-inch of water on tens of thousands of acres of steep rocky soil that has a slow absorption rate. 60 to 80 acres can supply a dozen acre-feet of runoff, thousands of acres multiply into a lot of water!

    Of course I’m responding to this because of the personal remembrance of loss of life, but to be fair, I’ve watched countless people stand next to flood waters watching for the next car or tree or house to be swept away, blithely unaware that they are just one thunderstorm away from being a statistic.

    It’s also classic that when the surf pulls away from the shore because a tsunami is imminent, people run out to see or catch the suddenly stranded fish. By the time they see the wall of water coming, it’s way too late. -rc

  22. I recall reading a book on basically finding novel non-engineering solutions to problems that engineers would tend to tackle with brute force. The name of the book was “Are your headlights on?”, and referred to a sign at the exit of a tunnel that had gone through many revisions. The original problem had been that there was a nearby park, and people would park there after going through the tunnel, forget they had turned on their lights, and come back to a dead battery. The first sign was “turn off your headlights”, but that apparently confused people who were exiting the tunnel at night. Then it was “turn off headlights in daytime”. But what about during rain? Eventually, someone came up with the eponymous sign, which did exactly what needed doing: it reminded people to think about the status of their headlights, without instructing them to *do* anything in particular.

    • I remember reading something quite similar, where the selected sign was simplified to “Lights?” for the same reasoning.

  23. If you want to see some really funny and oddly placed signs, check out any of the “Signspotting” series of books.

    One sign I always remember is “Speed Limit 19 1/2 MPH”.

    • I’ve seen “Speed Limit 19 MPH” signs. I think these are usually posted on private roads (the 19 MPH speed sign is inside inside of a retirement community), and the oddball speed limits are used to distinguish them from official, state-provided speed limit signs.

      And to simply grab attention. -rc

  24. There was an old sign on the corner of my children’s primary school which read “Dead slow children”. I suspect that decades before it was aimed at vehicle drivers and was not removed when vehicular access was stopped.

  25. My driving instructor growing up would always point out that *all* roads are slippery when wet, not just roads with a sign that says “Slippery When Wet.” And there’s a sign near me on an on-ramp to a highway that says “Watch for Stopped Cars 6 AM-9 AM Weekdays.” Should you not watch for stopped cars at other times of day, or on weekends?

  26. A sign that my wife and I find amusing (for two reasons) is the one warning of possible heavy machinery traversing the road — “Heavy Plant Crossing”. The first reason we laugh at it is because we are both SciFi buffs, familiar with the book and film “The Day of the Triffids”. The second reason is that we are learning Welsh, and “plant” is the Welsh word for “children”.

  27. There are some perfectly reasonable signs that my brain insists on reading a different way. In Australia, after you slow down because of maintenance work on the highway you are likely to be urged to “End Roadwork”. It must be a political slogan.

    Here in New Zealand rail crossings without barriers are likely to invite the driver to “Look For Trains”. Someone must have lost one. And my favourite is “Caution Wide Vehicles”. What have they done wrong?

  28. When I was younger, I well remember the “Falling Rock Zone” signs along cuts through the mountains. It seems to me that “Zone” is a good word to use — “Dust Storm Zone” would seem to be sufficiently explanatory for just about anyone.

    As with others who comment, I’ve been intrigued by road signs for many years. How *do* you convey information to people who may not speak the language (or at least, not well), or may not be attentive, in ways which are effective at speed? Or pass on unfamiliar concepts or advice? Even in England, different usages and traffic arrangements make signs obscure — “Toilets via subway”? “Single-track road with passing places” (a single-lane road with bidirectional traffic)?

    The move toward graphics, some of which are international standards (at least in Europe) has its own complications; I well remember puzzling out signs in Europe. And there are regional hazards. In the Adirondacks, there are signs which are full silhouettes of a rider on a snowmobile; to know what they mean, you have to recognize the machine as a snowmobile, and know that they can travel along roads (or cross them) even if there’s no snow on the road. Up in Quebec, they use an abstract 4-piece graphic to represent a (riderless) snowmobile — even harder to parse.

    Moose crossings are my favorite, though — “Moose crossing”, silhouettes of moose, or, in Vermont, just “Moose”. I can’t help thinking there must be a fair number of people, not limited to immigrants, who have no idea what a moose looks like, or even what it is. And once again, Quebec to the fore: there, a big sign which says (in French) “Danger! Risk of Collision”, next to two *signs* — yellow diamond warning signs, one with an abstract outline of a car and the other with the silhouette of a moose — and the *signs* are crumpling into each other! It seems really bizarre, but I guess it gets the point across — even if t does make my visualize road signs roaming the countryside, out of control!

    • Don: “Single-track road with passing places” (a single-lane road with bidirectional traffic)?

      Yes, pretty much. Proceed with caution, because you might encounter someone coming the other way and then one of you is going to have to reverse to the nearest passing place (a spot where there are two lanes so you can get around each other).

      • Actually, there’s a specific protocol for these, at least in the UK. The “passing places” are located based on line of sight. If you come to one, and you don’t see anyone ahead, you go on. If you see anyone in the track, you pull over into the passing place and wait for them to pass. Only when you see the road clear ahead do you continue. My point was simply that American drivers aren’t likely to have encountered such a thing, and will find it confusing, I was astonished and concerned when I found myself on one in Scotland, and wasn’t sure I read the sign right — who would run traffic both ways in the same lane? It wasn’t until I was negotiating it that I deduced the protocol and realized it was actually workable.

        There are many such roads in America, especially in the rural west. -rc

        • That’s the basic protocol (enshrined in a Government-published document known as “The Highway Code”), but it’s modified by the fact that if a single-track road is on a steep hill, the vehicle going downhill should always back up to a passing place to allow the vehicle going uphill to pass, because reversing uphill is more controlled than reversing downhill. Something I got wrong a couple of decades ago.

  29. One of my favourite sets of road signs is just outside Fredericton NB, Canada. On the highway side of a cemetery these signs read “NOTICE: Anyone entering these premises does so at their own risk.”

  30. As I write this I am in a hotel in Wyoming. We saw an ‘ice on bridge before road’ sign just today! One of my favorites was a sign in Danville, Illinois which read, “To go left make three right turns.” Think about it. And yes, the other side of the road had the opposite sign.

  31. This reminds of a sign I saw — in New Mexico — some 40 years ago. Driving east through Aztec, I came to the edge of town where a sign said ,”You are now leaving the Los Angeles city limits.” I’ve often wondered if that sign is still there, or if it’s moved further east. 🙂

    That’s pretty danged funny! I’ve been through Aztec several times in recent years, and haven’t seen it. -rc

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