Street Signs, Confusion and Speed Means Go Slow

When I lived in New York City street signs made sense. They informed directly, clearly, left little if anything to the imagination of any driver, much less a shiftless driver up to no good. New York City signs said Stop, No U-Turn, Slow, Caution, No Parking, 35 MPH, 40 MPH, and so forth. Some signs were blisteringly clear in their intentions. For example, I saw signs on Sutton Place, a street for the well-heeled on the Upper East Side, that read, Don’t Even Think About Parking Here. Try getting out of a ticket for parking there. “You thought it fella,” the judge would say. “Now pay up.”

It was not until I moved from New York City nearly 20 years ago that I realized I’d been spoiled when it came to street signs. I foolishly thought all street signs were, by default, clear and succinct. I was wrong.

When I left the city I moved to Ellenville in Sullivan County. A beautiful area. The Center of Ellenville sits exactly 10 miles off a State Route 17 exit which blends you right into Route 209 which then leads you through several villages before bringing you to the heart of Ellenville.

Now, in the spirit of full disclosure, it is, for the purposes of this essay, relevant to note that in 1987, the year I moved to Ellenville, I was not yet sober. I was a heavy pot smoker. Now, when you are a driver and a pot smoker (not a wise or safe combination under any circumstances, by the way), you tend to drive with what you think is impeccable caution. You focus on street signs with what you think is a high level of diligence. You need, desperately, street signs that are clear, to the point. Anything else leads to trouble, confusion, dismay!

Let me say here and now that whoever did the wording for street signs in upstate New York was (or is) a pot smoker. I’ll show you what I mean.

I exit 17 and get onto 209. Initially I see signs that seem fine. Speed limit, 55 MPH. Good, I understand that. I drive 57 miles hour because my pot smoker paranoia tells me driving the speed limit exactly will be too suspicious. A mile or two over the speed limit will signal to any lurking patrol car that I am a, well, normal every day driver. Then I see a sign I’ve never seen before. It reads: Speed Zone Ahead. I think, Cool!, and punch the gas. After all, what the hell else could Speed Zone Ahead mean? Suddenly I’m in a world of confusion. No sooner have I hit the gas and, to my dismay, find myself barreling through the heart of the village, where there are the most people, thank you very much, than I see a sign that says 30 MPH. I quickly slow the hell down, wondering what the hell happened to the speed zone.

Now I see a sign that says School Drug Safety Zone. Now I know I’m not in Kansas anymore. It’s safe to have illegal drugs up here around the schools?! Are these people are crazy? I am beginning to second guess my decision to move from New York City.

Then, I see a sign that almost makes me bring the car to a complete stop. It says, End 30 MPH. But there’s no follow up sign! What’s the next speed limit? Do I just drive any damn speed I want? What the hell are these people doing up here, putting up one sign that tells you one speed limit has come to an end and not telling you what comes next?

All I can tell you is this. When you see a street sign, be careful. It might not mean what it says.

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