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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, static, syllable-shy species, you might say. But my pet chameleon, Comma, fears the universal dearth of signage oomph, if you will, 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 meandering along any highway, country backroad or urban street filled with quixotic pick-me-ups – signs that refresh the mind as much as a first-light beach gallop or a sunset ramble along the pier.

Go on. Roll your eyes. Sure – not every moment on the blacktop flashes inspiration from heaven, as if you’re travelling to Damascus or Mecca or whatever your pilgrimage in life may be. 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, static, syllable-shy species, you might say. But my pet chameleon, Comma, fears the universal dearth of signage oomph, if you will, 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”.

Purely ceremonial insignia abounds 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 will be eliminating 20th-century gantries and other pointless signs by controlled gamma ray burst, and teleporting them to the great scrapheap in the sky.

With driverless cars doing the worrying for us, we can finally enliven our roadside infrastructure with a more engaging UX ethos, much like tech geeks have engineered the information 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 delicious brain food projected by hologram: a 3D image produced by laser beams.

Writ large across highways. Floating in place of a gamma-nuked stop sign. 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 for instructive yet inspiring communications through such technology 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 real tech is some way off, the chameleon dreams of a world where fun, discovery and linguistic invigoration light up each of the 526 kilometres on, say, the Northern Cape’s Brandvlei-Kuruman route.

Go with me on this one. According to Google Maps, you have five hours and 18 minutes to start reforming some of the more odious offenders of spelling, grammar and punctuation. In any of the 11 official languages.

By the time your captive audience trundles past the Kuruman Eye in, say, a capsule scooter – let’s call him Postman Patricio – he is more eligible than illegible bachelor. Now he can shock and awe the local Tinder talent by correctly using “at all” and “et al” in the same text message, and telling the phonetic difference between “lettis” and “lettuche”.

I’m not the commitment type, at all,” the dashing Il Postino Pat ventures in his subversive interpretation of Women’s Month, “I like diversity. A little bit of Monica in my life, et al. You free for the next Japanese bondage workshop, Saartjie? I’ll bring the lettuce.”

Bear in mind, Pat hasn’t kissed Saartjie yet. Maybe he’s just a slow mover. But he’s also likely to be vavavrooming off to the next postbox while she’s left to liberate herself of the rope around her ankle.

The moral of this parable, to paraphrase Persian poet Rumi: you are nowhere when you are everywhere. But “when you are somewhere, you are everywhere”.

The more prosaic analysis is that too many options 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 judiciously lasered signage, whether the goal is to give apostrophe lessons or warn about the dangers of drunk driving.

Taking a leaf out of Desert Solitaire author Edward Abbey’s usually anti-collegial letters, traffic authorities could pick top accident sites to laser literary quotes that invoke educational metaphors about drunk cooling equipment.

Jack Kerouac – like a sick refrigerator – worked too hard at keeping cool,” spat Abbey in what you might call a complete defection of humanity, “and died on his mama’s lap from alcohol and infantilism.”

Disturbing, sure. But that’s what shock campaigns do.

The chameleon tells me that humour as a form of behavioural economics is as old as the ‘Noah or Never’ campaign. This was an inspired 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 global 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.

Two months earlier, message boards further north in Maine reminded drive-and-dial offenders to “put down ur cell—or you may end up in one”.

Such punchlines offer legion opportunities to spruce up another dull route in desperate need of hologrammed humour – the near-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 bad.

Gleaned from an extremely scientific poll among six of my Facebook friends, other Most Boring South African Road contenders typically span the scrub and agricultural flatlands of the Northern Cape, North West Province and Free State. A Cape Town press photographer turned fly-fisher suggested the entire 30km R300 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.” (He’s done time travelling the trenches of journalistic warfare. “I’m at the age where, if someone says, ‘Go big or go home,’ I’m usually fine with going home,” he recently shared on his own page.)

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 [Free State] to Orange River [somewhere in the Northern Cape] 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.

Ken Saro-Wiwa, the executed Nigerian author and environmental activist, felt that “literature should be taken to the street. That is where, in Africa, it must be.” 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 appropriate 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.

As an aside, if you wish to know what Twain sounds like as an Afrikaans cyborg (cyboer?), copy the translated sentence, paste it directly into Google Translate’s Afrikaans textbox, and hit the ‘listen’ button. It’s decidedly entertaining.

For the physically lost or down-at-heart straying deeper into the Great Karoo, intentionally or inadvertently, a combination quote from the fantastical pens of 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 in a true tribute to stoicism, there aren’t necessarily wrong turns in the fork roads of life. Each holds unrealised potential with inevitable regrets if you steer your capsule scooter the other way.

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

The poem is, after all, about the road not taken, rather than the narrator’s final choice: the other less-travelled road, which – like committing to any one plotline in a Choose Your Own Adventure gamebook – will inevitably make “all the difference”.

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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