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L’ Angolo di Paul – Too many signs

A beautiful landscape like the one you find in Tuscany – a vast hilly terrain dotted with medieval villages, valleys teeming with vineyards and olive groves and flocks of sheep – is a landscape that you’d like to see completely free of all modern disruptions.

But because not all Italians can live in palaces or on picturesque farms, Tuscany is filling up with incredibly ugly new-build housing estates and industrial parks. Haphazardly knocked together zoni industriali and asphalt roads cut heedless paths through lovely glens and once-peaceful towns.

We accept the situation, grinding our teeth in frustration, but over the course of time it becomes impossible to ignore the enormous number of unnecessary traffic signs. All that remains of untouched nature in this part of Italy is seriously mucked up by this surplus of signs.

Why warn motorists hundreds of times that rain or snow can make the road slippery? How many cars actually slow down as they pass an endless series of ‘wildlife crossing’ signs? An especially dangerous hairpin bend may call for an indication of its approach, but an incessant repetition of ‘winding road’ signs that urge caution for long stretches of roadway still to come is useless. A pictogram that tells us to look out for falling rocks is confusing; it fails to make clear how we can adapt our driving behaviour to the danger implied. Should we reduce our speed or accelerate? (What the sign means, of course, is that rocks might have fallen on the road.)

All in all, an excess of traffic signs is more likely to make road users shrug their shoulders in indifference than to hone their powers of concentration.

My suspicious mind wonders whether the huge amount of signage might be the outcome of an extremely active lobby funded by the traffic-sign industry and, shall we say, a bunch of easy-to-manipulate public officials — rather than part of a plan to improve traffic safety. Backing my suspicions is the lack of consistency. At certain places the density of the signage is considerable. At others, it’s only your own vigilance that keeps you from going off the road while making a sharp turn that wasn’t indicated at all.

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As long ago as the 1970s, Dutch road-traffic authority Hans Monderman (1945–2008) was already proclaiming that too many traffic aids were to blame for making road users less alert. He put his theory into practice in towns such as Drachten, for example, in the Dutch province of Friesland.

My proposal for Italy, therefore, starts with Tuscany. What I envision is a large sign – installed at the spot where a major road crosses the border into the region – with traffic pictograms and information in Italian and in English. Each major road would greet visitors like this:

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Welcome to Tuscany!

While driving in Tuscany, you should be aware of:
– winding roads, especially in the hills
– the possibility of slippery roads caused by rain or snow
– rocks that have fallen on the road from rock faces
– wildlife crossing the road in rural areas

Have a pleasant journey and enjoy our beautiful region!

This sign would replace the majority of Tuscany’s existing roadside warnings, which can be removed.

The next step would be the prohibition of signs intended for advertising, which pop up at random everywhere in the landscape. Many of them bear the words spazio libero (space available), which reveal how little demand there is for such signage. Nonetheless, year in and year out the landscape is marred by these senseless advertisements. Here, too, I detect a whiff of cronyism …

Read this entry in Italian

This article first appeared in our newsletter Flows nr. 3, 2014