A Traffic Sign for John C. Calhoun

New traffic signs have appeared on the drive to my son’s school that perplex me and have me thinking of John C. Calhoun.


1) Why so many words/pictures?

As I count it, there are eight words/pictures in the above sign. That’s a lot for a driver in a moving car to absorb while he or she is driving. And reading down, you have to be able to shift from words (state law) to pictures (yield sign) to words (to) to pictures (pedestrian sign) to words (within crosswalk) to pictures (exclamation sign).


Is having such a long message really more effective than these traditional alternatives:

Of course, the proliferation of words in the new sign might be what makes it more effective. Drivers slow down to read all of the words/symbols. Maybe this is an example where verbosity saves lives.

But I doubt it. What’s more, I doubt that this has been tested empirically. I’d love to meet its tailor. We’ll send some Freakonomics schwag to the first reader who can send an example of a traffic sign with the most words/symbols directed toward moving vehicular traffic with an injunctive message. I’ve encountered longer parking signs. I’ve also encountered longer non-injunctive highway signs that give information about the next exit. But I can’t remember seeing a longer “Thou Shall (Not)” sign.

2) Why “State Law”?

Is it really necessary to tell us that the obligation to yield for pedestrians comes from state law? I understand that the government has a monopoly on putting up these traffic signs. Speed limits don’t incorporate the source of the injunction to drive less than 35 miles an hour. Would the signs be less effective if they excised these two words? And by emphasizing them, do these signs make other traffic injunctions less authoritative?

3) Why “State”?

Here’s a question for Steven Pinker. Why would the sign sound wrong if we left out the adjective “state”? Seatbelt billboards often say that wearing seatbelts is “not just a good idea, it’s the law.” They don’t mention the source of the law. The Miranda warning doesn’t say, “You have a constitutional right to an attorney.” Or “You have a right to an attorney that was dreamed up by activist judges.” Is the emphasis necessary because people would not abide by a traffic rule that was merely a federal (or municipal) law? This is a sign that only an advocate of state rights über alles, like John C. Calhoun, could love.


We have those signs here and, having worked many times with the Highway Department for the state and with the town DPW, I'd say the wording reflects two things:

1. A sense of education, as in "This is not a local ordinance but a law that applies whenever you are going to run over someone in a crosswalk."
2. Bad design. We have a lot of just plain bad design. Here's a simple example: Kenmore Square, next to Fenway Park, has been redone over something like 6 years and lots of overdrawn money and yet .... they changed the flow of traffic slightly so there's now a dedicated single left turn lane toward Fenway and two lanes that go straight out Beacon St. There are 3 signals and sense would say the one on the left would be the arrow for the left turn and the two others would be for the through lanes. Uh-uh. The two signals on the left both have left turn arrows, though there's only one left turn lane. This causes weird problems: people try to turn left from the center, which takes them over a big rumble strip, and since the left turn light goes green first you have a mess of horns and frustration from people "trapped" in the center lane they think is a left turn lane. This is brand new work and it's so simply wrong so how much guilt can a poor sign about a crosswalk bear?



I think in the early days of "Stop for Pedestrians in the Crosswalk" signs, many people assumed those signs were just suggestions from the local merchant association trying to make their town more pedestrian friendly (rather than an actual traffic law).

Although I doubt any emperical research was conducted, I suspect there was anecdotal evidence that these signs were routinely ignored, hence the additional "State Law" language.


"State Law" can ensure that any revenue from tickets goes to the state, as opposed to the local, government coffers.

When New York State made a change that directed all speeding fines go to the state instead of local government, some localities responded by passing local speed limit laws, adding "Town Law" to the signs and keeping all the revenue.

Jake Taylor

Semi-related - am I the only one who finds it disconcerting when you see a message painted on the roadway in front of you? In that they're always painted with the first word in the message occuring first as you approach, which to me runs counter to what we're used to, reading top-down.

Example: http://preview.tinyurl.com/lmczob

To me, that automatically reads "Ahead Stop." I have to think about it and consciously reverse them in my mind.

Some Guy

A potential benefit of the "state law" is the implied statement that this applies not just to this crosswalk, but to all crosswalks everywhere in the state.

It's not hard to come up with people who have somehow managed to convince themselves ridiculously self-serving things, like a belief that when some roads have "bike route" signs that means bicycles are prohibited from all roads that don't have such signage.

I suspect the sign would be more effective if it had the name of the state rather than just saying STATE. Invoking the name of your state can produce some pride, as is commonly seen in anti-littering campaigns like "Don't Mess with Texas." If Iowa law says to stop for pedestrians, then that means if you don't do it you must hate Iowa, right?

Rex Hammock

I feel certain that "design meeting" for the signs went something like this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xwqPYeTSYng


My friend noticed this one: "No Racing Zone Between 10 PM and 5 AM. Racing Attendance Prohibited." (www.twitpic.com/6ccok) I guess, worded as an injunction for a driver, it would be "no racing between 10 PM and 5 AM"; "feel free to race after 5 AM is, evidently, implied.

Bill Mill

There are some street signs in Baltimore that are extremely verbose and difficult to read. They often take the form of "No turn on red/between 4-7PM on weekdays/10-4PM on weekends". The closest I could find was this old picture; they haven't changed much: http://www.archives.gov/research/american-cities/images/american-cities-115.jpg

Daniel R. Craig

I think DK1 has it right with the "state law". I wonder, too, if the general verbosity is aimed as much at pedestrians as the drivers. It often seems more dangerous to have indecisive interaction between cars and pedestrians. Since states differ between each other as to who has right of way, it's not always clear. This is trying to indicate clearly to the vulnerable party what the expectation is.


With regards to pedestrians and crosswalks, why are people claiming this is educational? You have to know the rules to get a drivers license. If you are driving, you should already know that not running over pedestrians applies everywhere.

I'm going with the opinion that these wordy signs are simply the result of poor design.

"Hey man, you can't drag me down with your rules. I say the sign should be pink and say 'Stop right now, I mean it!'"


My guess as to the reasoning behind adding "State Law" is to increase the scare tactic for people reading the sign. Breaking a "state law" seems scarier than breaking a municipal ordinance. People seem to respond to those types of distinctions (which is why the general public thinks that "federal charges" are somehow scarier or worse than state charges).

Adding "State Law" startles a bit and differentiates the sign from other traffic signs. It was probably designed because there have been a lot of problems with people not yielding to pedestrians in that area and someone thought that a bigger/scarier/more neon sign would help the problem.


Thanks for the Zevon reference. I'm surprised he is not more frequently quoted by economists.

Chris McGrath

@ Jake Taylor

I agree completely. These markings drive me crazy. While I was growing up, Norfolk, VA had LANE DER SHOUL painted in the breakdown lane and I always thought it was something German.


I'm a pedestrian. On my walk to work I pass through several intersections. Two of them have signs just like the one you show in the middle of the road that read "state law." One has a sign that reads "stop for pedestrians" on the side of the road.

My adecdotal evidence is that drivers only stop when the signs are in the middle of the road and specify that it's a legal obligation to do so. Even then, one of the cross walks is behind the Supreme Court where a police officer happens to be on guard and has to occasionally step into the street to stop cars from flowing right on by pedestrians.

I'd also like to add that one of the crosswalks with this sign is withing sight of a second crosswalk that actually has traffic lights. I always use the one with the sign in the street because cars seem to stop more often, though not reliably. A better system would be great!


Are there places where it isn't the state law that vehicles must stop for pedestrians? If so, people from out of state might not know they are supposed to stop. So, putting that on the sign puts people on notice to watch for walkers at all crossings.

Erick G

It also empowers pedestrians to assert there right of way.

David Chowes, New York City

In the U. S. for many years we differed from our neighbors in Europe which used abstract traffic signs and symbols.

The problem in our country what has happened is the combination of our old ways of communication combined with the abstractions most of the rest of the world has used.

Result = confusion: too much information for easy and quick understanding.


At the city limits of Iowa City, Iowa, there is a sign that proclaims "Nuclear Weapon Free Zone". It is complete with a giant mushroom cloud inside a "no smoking" symbol. I assume the surrounding areas are just fine with your nuclear weapons....


whats a cross walk area? when are Americans going to learn to speak English? I have a friend in the South who wrote to me and sent me a list of over 200 words that are not in the english dictionary but are US skanky slang.

The answer of course is education. Stick to the international law regrading signs and the problem is solved. more intelligent Americans who will actually know where Africa is or the Shetland islands, or the orkney Islands or even the EU.

Sarcasm aside, by changing the the recognized international standard it makes it simpler and cost effective in the long run.


In NY, DMV, a state agency, standardizes signs. The angst around justifying bureaucratic existence is reaching a fever pitch as the state runs out of money. It is not surprising the state is reminding us we can't cross the street without their help(?)