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  • Keep on Truckin’, with Caution

    Those of us who spend a lot of time driving inevitably find ourselves looking at the rear ends of tractor trailers. If the journey is slow and dull enough, some of us, while waiting in toll lines or stuck in traffic jams, begin to study the yellow and black and red signs on trucks, and begin to wonder about their complex graphics and speculate on their origins.

    Trucks display official graphics signifying the presence of compressed gases or hazmats-hazardous materials-along with all manner of lamps and reflectors in addition to personal statements. Many of those embellishments are stipulated by law and regulation. Not so the common warning decals that warn other drivers about “Wide Right Turns.” They strike me as amazingly various, especially since, on the highway, most signs and other information are standardized and regularized by various governments. Consider the basic NO RIGHT TURN road sign one sees on highways everywhere by contrast to the many WIDE RIGHT TURN signs.

     

    Truck decals warn fellow drivers to pass on the left or risk their lives by passing on the right.

    Two companion truck decals warn drivers to pass on the left or else risk their lives (truckntow.com).

    Understand the reason for these “wide turn” signs: Big trucks have to swing out wide in order to turn and often fail to see smaller, lower cars to their right in their mirrors in the process. Despite the common nature of the problem and the message, these signs differ wildly. They share similar qualities of color and type and most work reasonably well, but they take different approaches.

    I have been snapping pictures of some of these signs for several years and at some point concluded that they constitute a small parable of the wider principles of design. They made me think about how various strategies of visual warnings can be pursued in search of the same goal.

    There is no government mandate for such warnings, which I learned when I checked with the American Trucking Associations (the plural “associations” is a legacy of the combination of several trade organizations for the trucking industry). According to Clayton W. Boyce, ATA vice president of public affairs and press secretary, “Our safety and engineering staff are not aware of any regulations that require a wide right turn sign.”

     

    Two versions of Wide Right Turn sides, one just text and one with illustration.

    Two approaches to the Wide Right Turns warning.

    The signs apparently grew out of perceived need by fleet owners, not out of a requirement. There is no standard form for these signs, no equivalent of an international airport icon or DOT symbol, no common lettering or image generated by the government or business organizations. The signs share a similar commercial vernacular feel. There is nothing here that looks like it comes from a government handbook or the Symbol Sourcebook. Most of the signs are produced as stick-on decals by makers of standardized signs for vehicles, warehouses, factories and so on.

    X marks the wide-right-turn collision and avoid the blind spot signs.

    Two signs (mysafetysign.com).

    One such company explains their purpose on its website: to “help keep the roads and highways safe for everyone.” Many of the sign makers feel compelled to add images to the words. Personally, I enjoy the graphics-the X, to warn of the point of potential crash impact or the mapping of the blind spot area, which literally resembles a footprint.

    I am also taken with the somewhat gawky, warehouse-supply-catalog quality of the signs, so much in contrast with the slick abstractions of warning symbols we see on packaging and instruction manuals-graphics devised in most cases by international standards committees, industrial organizations or government agencies.

    That raises an interesting point, how warning someone about the same hazard can involve different strategies. One way is to simply say DON'T, without further explanation. Graphically, this is represented by the classic circle and slash over an icon representing an activity. But another way is to show the consequences of an act. You can warn people away from a behavior by depicting its results. Think of the dramatic arched back of a person in the throes of electrocution in some signs. Verbally, a famous case of this approach is the mother's classic warning about the Red Ryder B-B gun her son dreams of, in the 1983 film A Christmas Story: “You'll shoot your eye out!”

    Graphic depiction of wide right turns.

    Graphic depiction of a wide turn gone wrong (truckntow.com).

    Truck signs mostly take this illustrated approach. They do it in various ways, however. Most depict the consequences in the kind of graphic cartoon. They show an abstract truck car collision. Some show it only in black and white. Others add color, especially the traditional warning colors: red and yellow. Some show the collision from above, as in a map or an architect's plan. Others depict the crash at ground level, in perspective. The perspective images-little vignettes, almost storyboards-mostly appear to have been drawn with a rule or drafting software. Sometimes a car is juxtaposed with a truck in a wholly different perspective framework, the intersection of a piece of clip art providing a contradictory vanishing point and an odd sense of suspension.

    In many cases the perspective is exaggerated and elongated. This is perhaps appropriate. This visual exaggeration may be the equivalent of increasing the pitch and volume of your voice in verbally delivering a warning. In one case, the red background and black truck suggest a hyped impression of drama worthy of the cover of a novel or even a poster for a film noir.

    Most show the moment of the crash. The artists attempt to render in symbols the sounds or shock of impact, with zigzag forms, arrows, or cartoon representations of explosions. Others add a graphic punch line, saying, “so, don't go here,” by Xing out the car in the space indicated.

    A decal shows a car in the no-zone (photo by Flickr user Mykl Roventine)

    A decal shows a car getting squeezed in the no-zone (Flickr user Mykl Roventine).

    But there is a third and wholly different strategy. This one has the support of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, a government agency with authority over trucks. The FMCSA's “No-Zone” graphics and publicity campaign are the closest thing to an official government warning sign and program with approved graphics. It is an approach that steps beyond the wide right turn phrase, which can be confusing to the car driver, and tries to clarify the whole business with a slogan, “Don't Hang Out in the No-Zone!” The no-zone, a catchy name for blind spot areas, messaging builds on the old “If you can't see my mirrors, I can't see you” approach, which saw the problem solely from the truck driver's standpoint and no doubt baffled many car drivers.

    The FMCSA began the No-Zone Program in 1994 as a publicity/propaganda effort to make ordinary automobile drivers aware of safety precautions around commercial vehicles. “Avoid the 'Squeeze Play!'” warns the No-Zone campaign brochures and websites, explaining that “truck and bus drivers sometimes need to swing wide to the left in order to safely make a right turn. They can't see cars directly behind or beside them. Trying to 'squeeze' in between the commercial vehicle and the curb is an invitation for disaster!”

    Animated graphics vividly illustrate the dangers not with X's or asterisks, but by diagramming a truck with a red or hatched no-zone, the danger area. The No-Zone approach is high concept: It chooses to depict not the consequences of the act but an area of danger, which is then rendered as a bubble or cushion around a plan form truck. The agency urges truckers to apply signs or decals carrying the message and supplies a list of vendors on its website.

    The red-starbust crash warning that Mark Bender supposedly designed.

    Red starburst graphic allegedly conceived by Mark Bender (courtesy Dan O'Neil).

    Others have taken an interest in these truck decals, too. Not long ago I came across a web site and collection created by an author and software developer named Dan O'Neil, who is also fascinated with the “Wide Right Turn” signs and assembled a Flickr set and a web site.

    O'Neil says he has “a primary and lasting” obsession with the signs. He appears to be interested in them for reasons similar to mine: their variety. Like me, he sees a wider pattern in these mundane messages. He loves “annotated compilations and manic compendiums,” which he says demonstrate “the role of variation in a capitalist society” and his compendium of signs is one of these.

    The signs belong to the category of what O'Neil terms “Derivative Works.” They are part of an American “love affair with differentiation [that] extends to everything we choose-cars (big, small, real big, super big), houses (great room in front, great room in back, vinyl windows, center staircase), toothbrushes, credit cards, everything.”

    In 2006, O'Neil received an email from a man who claims to have designed the first, or at least one of the first, signs. The man, Mark Bender, lives in Scotland, but was born in Texas. He believes he drafted the first wide-right-turn sign 30 years ago for a truck company in San Antonio now called R&L Carriers; the firm also planned to sell the signs to other companies. Bender said he was paid a fee of $500. He moved to Scotland, and more than fifteen years later, he returned to the United States to find his signs and many like them on highways everywhere.

    More right-turn signs, using red X's and starbursts.

    More right-turn signs, using red X's and starbursts.

    In his email Bender told O'Neil about his background in drafting-he was the son of an architect and inherited his love of perspective, which may account for the exaggerated perspective of the sign. He is proud of adding an image to the words, Bender wrote: “At the time, the idea of putting an image that 'showed you' the problem was unheard of.”

    The part of the design of which Bender was proudest is also the one I find most delightful: the little red graphic representing a crash. He calls it a “starburst.”

    “My favorite bit is the crazy explosion bit where the car and the truck collide!” he noted. “I always loved the POW! and WAM! from Batman, the television show.” I knew from my time on the road just what Bender meant.

    Bender's claim sounds legitimate, but how many others could have been working similarly on signs, with slightly different design approaches? It would be easy to read the variety of signs as a parable of competition against government standardization in design-except that the winner would be clear. The effectiveness of the competing private creations is that they do get your attention without being pretty, elegant or “well designed.” They are charming and human. They are like signs an amateur like me would devise. But there is a small flash of creativity to each one of these, a little firecracker of an idea.

    Call it the starburst effect.

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