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COMMA CHAMELEON: End of the road for traffic signs as we know them


Tiara Walters writes for Daily Maverick's climate crisis unit, Our Burning Planet. A recipient of the South African National Parks environmental journalist of the year award, she's written for leading African and international publications for nearly 20 years, including the American Polar Society’s Polar Times, the Lonely Planet Guide to Antarctica and the Sunday Times. She was the first South African woman journalist to oversummer in Antarctica with the South African National Antarctic Programme. In addition to the climate crisis, she has a special interest in the illegal wildlife trade and other global conservation issues, the natural sciences as well as space sciences. Her work in broadcasting includes environmental radio and a stint as field presenter for 50/50, the SABC's long-running conservation television show. She has also contributed widely to the publishing industry as book editor and ghostwriter. Photo:

Traffic signs ought to be simple, syllable-shy species, you might say. But my pet chameleon, Comma, fears the universal dearth of signage oomph might actually be putting humans to sleep.

If the road is life, to quote Beat prophet Jack Kerouac, why are the thoroughfares that demand much of our time so low on imaginative traffic signs?

Immerse yourself, for a second, in the thought of driving along any highway, country backroad or urban street filled with pick-me-ups – signs that refresh the mind as much as a first-light beach gallop.

Go on. Roll your eyes. Sure – not every moment on the blacktop flashes inspiration from heaven, as if you’re travelling to Damascus. Most of us, after all, will never get closer to Kerouac’s Fabled Thoroughfare than being sandwiched in solitary confinement among 600 other armpits on a MyCiTi bus. (A great paradox of being human in the metropolitan space.)

Traffic signs ought to be simple, syllable-shy species, you might say. But my pet chameleon, Comma, fears the universal dearth of signage oomph might actually be putting humans to sleep.

Don’t take the chairman of the branch’s word for this.

Earlier this year, a transport review for the UK government warned that England’s inane signs had “become so widespread” they were “verging on national humiliation”.

Such signs abound in South Africa, too. ‘Yield’ and its cousins, ‘Slippery Road’ and ‘Speed Limit’, certainly didn’t save the 135,000 people who died on South African roads during the past decade.

Next-generation traffic control powered by artificial intelligence could hardly come at a better time.

This December, roads agency Highways England will begin relaying 5G-beamed messages to the most advanced car dashboards travelling between London and Dover. It’s a two-year, £20-million trial; not quite the real thing yet – but Belgian, French and Dutch authorities are already transmitting speed limits, weather reports and other traffic information to motorists. Soon, roads agencies everywhere may be nuking pointless signs by gamma ray burst, and teleporting them to the scrapheap in the sky.

With driverless cars doing the worrying for us, we can finally enliven road signs with a more engaging UX ethos, much like tech geeks have engineered the info superhighway.

In South Africa, we already have electronic signboards broadcasting traffic delays and anti-texting hashtags such as #itcanwait.

In a more futuristic scenario, we might theorise that ‘Stop’, ‘Left’ and ‘Do Not Overtake’ make way for signs projected by hologram: a 3D image produced by laser beams.

Writ large across highways. Princess Leia hovering at an N2 turnoff, helping you find the nearest Oudtshoorn ostrich farm. Seen by motorists from any direction, no goggles required.

The potential is infinite. Suddenly a trip on the dullest stretch of South African blacktop – Welkom to Bloem, purely for argument’s sake – feels like a cyberpunk journey to the restaurant at the end of the universe.

Although the tech is some way off, the chameleon also dreams of a world where linguistic instruction lights up each of the 526 kilometres on, say, the Northern Cape’s Brandvlei-Kuruman route.

Go with me on this one. Placing signs as English teachers all along this road, you may have five hours and 18 minutes to start reforming some of the worst offenders of spelling, grammar and punctuation. In any of the 11 official languages.

By the time your captive audience trundles past the Kuruman Eye, they will be more eligible than illegible bachelors, ready to shock and awe the local womenfolk with their new skills. 

However, too many lessons may overwhelm those in transit.

The Highways England report says it best. “Information overload can contribute to driver distraction.”

It’s road UX 101. The key is smartly lasered signage, whether the goal is apostrophe instruction or warnings about the dangers of drunk driving.

The chameleon tells me that humour as a form of behavioural economics is as old as the ‘Noah or Never’ campaign. This was a thought experiment that sought to show why the Ark’s cramped interior, compared with the big blue sea, was the better choice for two weevils.

Fast-forward a couple of thousand years, and transport authorities are still using legit LOLs to corral traffic.

In July 2018, police of Yuma – the Arizona city that served as a location for Star Wars classic Return of the Jedi – used some wit on electronic traffic signs to spread safety awareness.

Airbags smear makeup, wear ur seatbelt for pete’s sake.”

The message is conveyed with a little humour rather than a stoic message from the cops,” Sergeant Eric Egan told a local NBC television station.

Such punchlines offer legion opportunities to spruce up another dull route in need of hologram humour – the arrow-straight line from Villiers to Warden in the Free State.

(I consulted my matric literature teacher about this and she says Warden to Villiers is just as dull.)

Gleaned from an extremely scientific poll among six of my Facebook friends, a Cape Town press photographer turned fly-fisher suggested the entire 30km stretch between Brackenfell and Philippi as the only Western Cape challenger.

Arguably not the most boring,” he said of this notorious conveyor of the Cape Flats gang economy, “but definitely the shittiest.” 

Veteran travel author David Bristow’s contribution covered six hours and two minutes of Hofs, Drifts and Villes through exultant celebrations of semi-pastoral nonexistence.

It’s hard to beat Villiers to Warden. But Kroonstad to Orange River trumps even that.”

Pictured as talking travel writers, great protagonists or giant, drifting Kindle pages, traffic holograms could do more than just teach or amuse. They could also stand sentinel where the national conversation needs them.

So, we might as well beam a laager-than-life hologram of Mark Twain at the R387 and R369 T-junction leading towards the “Afrikaner-only” encampment of Orania, growing glacially but steadily at the geographic epicentre of post-apartheid South Africa.

This would give motorists – interloper plus native – something ethically apt to contemplate, preferably with the great American novelist delivering his best one-liners in local vernacular.

Reis mag noodlottige nagevolge vir volkspele- en Vierkleur-aanhangers inhou.” (Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness.)

For the physically lost or down-at-heart straying deeper into the Great Karoo, a sign inspired by novelists Ray Bradbury and JRR Tolkien might offer instruction:

Those who feel lost do not wander, but half the fun of travel is the aesthetic of lostness.

More than anything, I would dance in front of the gods of literature as though they were the golden calf itself if they could find a way to publicly hologram the real meaning of the Robert Frost Poem, The Road Not Taken.

As the narrator notes, there aren’t necessarily wrong turns in the fork roads of life. Each holds unrealised potential with inevitable regrets if you steer your scooter the other way.

And both that morning equally lay,” the narrator remembers, “in leaves no step had trodden black.”

Such reverse psychological tactics might even divert traffic from the road less travelled, making the escape to Planet Fokol truly scenic and enjoyable again.

Don’t even get me started on the opportunities for hologrammed tutelage at South African Metrorail platforms, now that stranded commuters have so much time to fill.

According to, the average bookworm will spend 29 hours and 36 minutes on Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables.

To remind commuters there’s always redemption, whole holograms of Hugo’s novel may be dispatched, just before the next train for Retreat approaches like a light at the end of the tunnel. DM


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