When a sign tells you more than it’s designed to

In the 1950s, psychologist Eric Berne wrote a paper on Transactional Analysis (TA). In it he talked about how people function and express their personality through their behaviour. TA also works as a tool to analyse the way people – and organisations – communicate.

In essence, people can communicate as a parent, an adult or a child. The ‘child’ state is emotional, teddy-throwing and spontaneous; there’s not much thinking before speaking. You’ll see a lot of Child on social media. ‘Adult’ is neutral, objective, reasoning and reasonable. ‘Parent’ is judgemental, scolding and attempts to treat others as children.

If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of a parent-child style email from a boss, a colleague or the HR department, you’ll know the feeling it generates. It’s not an effective way to communicate – it belittles, angers and those emotions completely bypass the message’s effectiveness.

So what on earth has a psychological theory from the 1950s got to do with roadsigns – particularly this one:

Because I told you so, now shut up.

These are pretty common. They used to be popular for 30 limits, they’re now a default in the many new 20 limits being imposed around the UK. This one is at the end of Sheep Street in Burford in the Cotswolds in Oxfordshire County Council’s patch.

It’s interesting to see parent-child language being used like this. There’s a decent argument for suggesting its tone if pretty passive-aggressive too. To the driver or motorcyclist wondering why the road has a new 20mph limit, the comment is, in essence, “Because I said so.” You might even be able to hear that scolding parent tone; shut up and get back in your place.

“It’s 20 for a reason – but we’re not going to tell you what it is. Just shhh and do as you’re told because I said so!”

Does it give drivers or riders any useful information? Not really. Does it advise or help? Nope. Does it add anything apart from more sign clutter to already over-signed roadsides? Nope again. But it does tell us rather a lot about how the local council views road users. There’s a good chance you’ll already be yelling at the screen “Well, if drivers didn’t behave like children we wouldn’t need to treat them that way!” but that rather misses the point. Treating drivers like children hasn’t really achieved a great deal so far.

Driving is the most complex thing you’ll do today unless you happen to be nipping up to the JR to do a bit of brain surgery. The combination of psychomotor skills, observation, car control, hazard management, anticipation and judgement is still blindsiding artificial intelligence systems. Self-driving cars are a long way in the future, if they ever arrive. Externally-controlled motorcycles are even further off.

Yet County Hall believes driving is a sufficiently mechanistic task that it can be reduced to drive-by-numbers.

Limits in Oxfordshire – and elsewhere – have proliferated. My nine mile journey to work goes 30-60-30-60-40-30-40-60-30-60-40-60-30-20. That’s fourteen changes of limit in 9 miles. It’s driving-by-numbers; like paint-by-numbers, a bad parody of the real thing. It’s hard to believe that many of those apparently random numbers are there for a reason.

One thought on “When a sign tells you more than it’s designed to

Add yours

  1. Good morning Mark, is there a subscribe option for your posts? I’m hoping that ticking the post notification box below will do the job!

    Speaking of jobs, I’m still in the market for just about anything, I think – I hope – I sent you my CV a little while ago but I’ll send you an updated one anyway.

    Best wishes,

    Adam Lethbridge
    07585 086228


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