Yielding to the city's signs of the times Essay: In Baltimore alone, the streets are marked with 250,000 instruction telling motorists what to do.


One day not long ago, I got home from work and found a new sign posted on my street: DEAD END.

Such a thing naturally raises questions about your social prospects. Who wants to live in a DEAD END?

So I called City Hall. They told me where I could put my questions.

No, really, there is such a place. It is a yellow building far out on East Lombard Street. It's called the Sign Shop.

When I got there I conveyed my dismay to Frank J. Murphy, a supervisor in the traffic division of the Department of Public Works. He said it couldn't be helped, or words to that effect, especially since that's what it is, my street, a DEAD END.

I importuned for something less discouraging. Why not NO OUTLET?

He explained why that wouldn't work: 'A DEAD END street doesn't connect with another street. If you enter it, you have to come back to the same place after making a U Turn.

'(Well, I knew that.)

NO OUTLET, he continued, means the street does not continue in the direction you are heading, but it can also connect to other streets, but eventually it will bring you back to the point where you entered, or nearby.

He drew me a picture:

In a final gambit, I asked why he couldn't declare my street a CUL DE SAC.

He gave me a funny look, as if to say, 'Because this ain't France.

'This left two options: Accept it, or move. My wife and I chose to stay. We decided it's not so bad in the end, so to speak.

Traffic signs guide our lives. They tell us when to go, where to go, when to stop. They let us know where we are, where we're heading.

Baltimore City has some 250,000 traffic signs posted within its limits. They include directional signs, parking signs, stop signs, bus signs, route markers, street-name signs, road-condition signs, railroad crossing warnings and hundreds of others.

Last year the Department of Public Works took an inventory. It hired 100 students, gave them T-shirts, hats and clipboards and sent them out to count all the signs. They started on June 30 and finished Aug. 8. The students got $4.75 an hour and a lot of fresh air.

Among those 250,000 signs are about 700 different messages. Most come from a book called the 'Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices.' It was originally published in 1935 and dictates general standards for signs, like colors and shapes.

The commonest shape is an 18' x 24' rectangle. The commonest color is white with red lettering, usually bearing parking information.

Yellow signs convey warnings, and are almost always diamond-shaped. Red, of course, demands a full stop. The STOP sign is the only octagon in the inventory.

Brown signs give recreational or cultural information. Orange signs advise you of road work. Green signals permissible movement or guidance. Rail crossing signs are round. YIELD signs are equilateral triangles; pennant-shaped triangles mean don't pass.

City signs don't have the variety of the signs posted statewide. There are no COW CROSSING signs in Baltimore. There are DEER CROSSING signs on city property, however. Most are in and around the Pretty Boy and Loch Raven reservoirs.

Bob Murrow, a spokesman for Public Works, said he once saw a DUCKLING CROSSING sign in Pennsylvania. He sounded wistful. There are no DUCKLING CROSSINGS in Baltimore City. Nor are there likely to be.

Some signs go out of date. On a highway in Delaware recently we spied a sign showing a young boy running. No text, just the boy. He was wearing knickerbocker trousers. Kids don't wear knickerbockers anymore. To me they always suggested innocent youth, agility and speed.

Baltimore, say the people at the Sign Shop, has no signs like that. Here children at play are represented by stick figures with heads the shape of bubbles; they have no hands or feet, no human anatomical characteristics. I sense something's been lost here.

Murphy doesn't like putting up CHILDREN AT PLAY signs. 'Kids,' he says, 'can be playing on any street in the city at any time.

'The signage in other countries is often more inclusive than ours. When I related to Murrow, who had reported the DUCKLING CROSSING in a neighboring state, that I once saw a TURTLE CROSSING sign in England, he seemed impressed.

Then I told him about the OAP signs, also in England. These advise motorists they are in an Old Age Pensioners area. These signs carry silhouettes of an elderly couple, with bent backs and canes.

'You'd get in trouble putting that up here,' said Murrow. 'You'd have older adults saying it doesn't depict them respectfully.

' Mindful of the potential for the wrath of the elderly, Baltimore makes do with SENIOR CROSSING on a diamond-shaped yellow sign. 'We don't have an acceptable senior symbol,' Murrow concedes.

What we do have, probably, are some semi-literate drivers who might not get the message.

According to Murphy, symbolism is gaining ground in our signage. In Europe, where so many different people speak so many different languages, and drive in and out of each other's countries a lot, traffic signs have to get their messages across without text.

Murphy says one current aim of traffic engineers is to make driving around the United States easier for foreigners, and to bring this country into conformity with the rest of the world.

'The symbol movement,' he said, 'has had better luck than the metric movement.

'Symbols are being introduced gradually. The old SLIPPERY WHEN WET has been changed to this:

The No U Turn signs increasingly read like this:

Baltimore makes its own signs, and spends about $250,000 a year doing it. The Sign Shop is a clean place, kind of a small factory, with about 30 men and women in it. Last year they turned out 49,648 signs. About 1,000 a year are stolen.

The raw material they work with arrives in the form of aluminum sheets 4 feet by 12. From those the metal is cut into the appropriate shapes, then the edges are sanded and smoothed, and holes are punched into them.

Old signs are recycled. They are sand-blasted down to the bare surface. New reflective sheeting is put on, where needed.

All the signs that relate to the movement of traffic: STOP, SLOW, EXIT, etc., have reflective sheeting. It shows up better at night. Parking signs or other informational signs usually don't have it.

Traffic signs last about 11 years, depending on the climate, wind, position with regard to the sun. They have their messages painted on through a variety of processes. Some are painted by a machine; others are screen-painted. 'This is the oldest form of printing in the world,' says Stan Cruse, who runs the Sign Shop. 'It's called serigraph.

'Computers also turn out traffic signs for the city these days. Others are hand-lettered, especially the unusual signs, like the Pimlico logo (a horseshoe, with ribbon across it and black-eyed Susans) near the track.

Bertha Cameron has been hand-painting in the Sign Shop for about eight years. She can finish 10 to 15 a day, depending on how complicated they are. It is meticulous and exacting work. She learned her skill at Carver Vocational Technical High School, as did the other three sign painters in the Sign Shop.

The day of my visit she was creating another DEAD END. I wondered if she had done mine, and if the one under her brush would bring dismay to the heart of some poor soul when he arrived home from work one day soon.

Pub Date: 5/18/98

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