Tough Time With Sign Language

Jan Hofmann is a regular contributor to Orange County Life.

Quick--what’s the opposite of east?

No, it’s not west. It’s Orange.

The opposite of Los Angeles? Not New York. It’s Riverside, just as the opposite of San Diego is Long Beach.

Don’t believe me? Just check out the freeway signs. It’s all right there in green and white.


It’s enough to make you wonder sometimes if our roads were actually manufactured in Taiwan and shipped over here with a set of instructions that bear an uncanny resemblance to English: Exit must lane right.

At least one thing is clear: Traffic congestion isn’t the only reason we have so much trouble getting from one place to another around here. Traffic confusion deserves a sizable share of the blame as well.

So while we’re wishing upon a star for monorails or cursing car-pool lanes and ramp meters, let’s pause for a moment (something we Orange County drivers do fairly often anyway when we’re on the road) to confront a problem that ordinary mortals might even be able to solve. Cheaply.

So let’s talk sign language.


* Problem No. 1: The hidden ramp. The trouble here is in placement, not phraseology.

You’re driving along a surface street, cars to the left, cars to the right, more cars behind you and in front. Up ahead you can see a freeway ramp going off to the right. But you want to go in the other direction, which means you’ll have to drive under the overpass or over the underpass. You’ll also need to get in the correct lane, because sometimes these ramps go off to the left and sometimes they’re on the right. But how can you tell if there’s no sign? So you stick to the middle, ready to hit the turn signal and zip over as soon as you get the word. But all too often, the only sign is the one on the ramp itself. By the time you see it, your only options are a mad lurch across the lanes or going past and doubling back.

Solution: Put up a sign for every freeway ramp to let drivers know ahead of time which way to turn. How much could that cost? If necessary, the signs could say something like, “Ramp Left/57 North/100 Yards.” Even obtuse directions are better than none at all.

* Problem No. 2: Let’s say you do see the ramp, and you even manage to get on it. What you don’t see, until it’s too late, is that the freeway is full. But by the time you’re on the ramp, it’s too late.

Solution (comes from Dorothy Adams of South Laguna): Put up a warning signal, she says, to let drivers know when there’s no more room before they’re on the ramp and can’t turn back.

* Problem No. 3: I haven’t been to Pomona in years, but every time I get on the freeway to go to Fullerton, I have to pretend I’m going to Pomona. If I’m headed for Mission Viejo, I have to imagine I’m on my way to San Diego. Maybe some drivers enjoy the idea that the road they’ve chosen could take them farther if they didn’t have to be home in time for dinner, but to me it’s just plain confusing.

Solution: Whatever happened to quaint but simple terms such as “north” and “south”? Or if cities must be named on these signs, why not the cities we’re most likely headed for: Orange County cities?

* Problem No. 3 1/2: Apparently someone decided to experiment with this idea on the Costa Mesa Freeway (which no one ever refers to as the “Costa Mesa Freeway”). At the Chapman Avenue exit, you have two choices: East and Orange. Both ramps, by the way, will leave you in the city of Orange.


Solution: If they can’t call the “Orange” ramp “West,” then they should rename the eastbound ramp “Green.”

* Problem No. 4: Names versus numbers. When was the last time you gave someone directions that went like this: “You take the Riverside Freeway to the Orange Freeway to the Garden Grove Freeway to the Costa Mesa Freeway”? Most people use numbers instead: “Take the 91 to the 57 to the 22 to the 55.”

Solution: Names are friendlier than numbers, but they’re not as concise. Stick with the numbers instead. Orange County is a pioneer in this effort, since we already have one nameless freeway. It’s the 90 in Yorba Linda, a.k.a. part of Imperial Highway, and it was once known as the Richard Nixon Freeway.

* Problem No. 5: Caltrans, we know you mean well when you paint the road with messages such as “Left merge ends lane.” You’re just trying to be considerate, giving us time to read the nearest word first. But most of us learned to read left to right, top to bottom, and to us it looks backward.

Solution: Turn the messages around or figure out a way we can drive standing on our heads.

* Problem No. 6: Aren’t they attractive, those green and white signs? Such soothing colors. Unfortunately, they’re not the best for contrast, according to Dr. Clifford Terry, the ophthalmologist we talked to last week about night vision. And that means we can’t see them as well as we should.

Solution: Stick to black and white, the clearest combination according to Terry, either black letters on a white background or vice versa. But it could be worse: Freeway signs in Orange County could be like some of the old ones in the city of Orange: white letters on an orange background, barely visible day or night.

That’s the end of my list. But if you have any problems (or solutions) in mind when it comes to traffic signs, please send them to Life on Wheels.


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Send your comments to Life on Wheels, Orange County Life, The Times, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, Calif. 92626. Please include your phone number so that we can contact you. To protect your privacy, Life on Wheels does not publish correspondents’ last names when the subject is sensitive.