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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.
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
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 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.
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
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 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 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
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.
Red starburst graphic allegedly conceived by Mark Bender
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
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
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.
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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