By on November 8, 2013


I’m not sure why a generation or two ago municipalities replaced the old Walk / Don’t Walk crossing signals with lights using pictograms instead. Perhaps someone thought they were more easily understood, or perhaps it was part of general trend towards using international symbols, like the little fuel pump by your gas gauge instead of the word “Fuel”. Either way, Walk / Don’t Walk was considered obsolete. Now, it seems as though the pictograms just weren’t that easily understood, as we apparently have to explain to people that a red hand means “don’t walk” and that a white pictogram of a person walking means “walk”.


The notion of a countdown is also apparently considered très difficile for the average pedestrian, or at least it’s considered so by the people who buy crossing signals for cities and counties, since we also have to be told that the numerals represent how many seconds we have left to cross the street. The company that makes these signs and the municipalities that buy them are trying to clarify things, I’m sure, but am I the only person who finds the instructions at the bottom of the sign, “To Cross Push Button” with an arrow pointing to the side, a little confusing? It took me a second to realize that the arrow indicates which street crossing that signal controls, not where the button is. Discuss amongst yourselves.

Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If you think 3D is a plot to get you to buy yet another new TV set, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS

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63 Comments on “What’s Wrong With This Picture?: When Did We Get This Stupid?...”

  • avatar

    Well, the change from words to pictograms makes sense; not everyone speaks English, and those words vary so much, familiarity with a similar language wouldn’t help. (I really wish US Building codes would switch over to ISO-Standard Exit signs for new contruction; the ISO pictogram is really good, and the word “EXIT” hanging from the ceiling utterly meaningless to a non-English speaker.)

    And explaining what a flashing red-hand with countdown means is also useful. Without the explanation, does it mean:

    Don’t start crossing the street in X seconds?
    Don’t start crossing the street for X seconds?
    You’ll lose the signal in X seconds? (The correct answer)

    It seems silly to somebody who grew up with them, but not every town has crossing signals.

    The solid red hand and walk signals don’t need explanation, but if you are going to put up a sign anyway about the flashing hand and which button to push, you might as well explain the other two symbols for consistency.

    • 0 avatar

      Valid conclusions. But I think the answer goes deeper than that. Everyone, including municipalities, individuals and manufacturers (including the makers of traffic light/pedestrian control systems) is deathly afraid of getting sued. I had an Estwing construction hammer that came with the warning printed on the handle to the effect of “Always wear safety goggles when operating this tool”.

      There is a good reason for why we are now dive-bombed by intelligence-insulting instructions. That reason is (drum roll): Five decades of indoctrinating our kids with the notion that rights without accountability is a good thing, and that if you can find someone to sue then life on easy street is yours for the taking with no regrets. Coffee to hot? Sue! Got hit by a car while jay-walking? Sue the driver AND the car maker! “The driver should have been paying closer attention (besides, the insurance company can afford to take the financial hit) and those brakes should have been more effective!”

      Hey, parasites- here’s a news flash from hell for ya: If you game the system with no regard for the rights of others you can expect to be ostracized, ridiculed and talked down to at every turn.

      • 0 avatar

        Hallelujah Zeus!

      • 0 avatar

        Nicely put.

      • 0 avatar

        Well, yeah, an entitlement mentality is part of it, but you know who enables that? Lawyers! Shakespeare proposed a solution centuries ago, but nobody wants to try it.

      • 0 avatar

        The sings are there to reduce the liability in the event of a lawsuit, not as a benefit to the person who reads the sign. Same principle when your employer has an “anti-harassment” training course. The point of the training is to show the company made all reasonable attempts to avoid harassment and therefore has a defense if it occurs.

        Reminds me of a system I worked on for the military. We couldn’t use the words “Caution: don’t do X” because it was an invitation to see if X could be done buy the user. Instead, the system had to say “Warning: X don’t do X”. Maybe I’m switching around warning and caution, can’t recall clearly now.

      • 0 avatar

        Zeus: You are the Man! Truer words never spoken. I’m only hoping that rationality returns in 10-20 years.

    • 0 avatar

      Why do us cars require “BRAKE” instead of iso brake sign? Most cars will have both as Canada requires iso brake symbol.

      If i could count the amount of road signs i drive by with text, and no pictures.

      I do agree iso symbols are better.

      I remember the text crosswalks when i was a kid. Not sure when they went away, i never noticed. They are easy to understand.

    • 0 avatar

      I’m not sure the ISO exit sign (running man) is that much helpful. In most cases you just want to walk out, not run.

      Even when not knowing english and coming ot the US, you must be pretty dumb not to figure out quikcly that the EXIT sign alwaays is where you usually see “aurgang” or whatever your language is. I haven’t heard of anyone burning in a building becuase he stood in front of the EXIT and didn’t know to go through that door outside. And if it would have heppned, it would have proven Darwin is right.

      Same for the walk – don’t walk. the “don’t walk” is in red, which in every country means not to walk. Sure, the “walk” coudl be green like everywhere else. but again, haven’t seen anyone standing on the crosswalk for days becasue he couldn’t figure out the non-red ligt means he can walk.

      I’m not cinfused by the arrow, it seems clear the arrow represents which street the button is for. it becomes clear whne you are at an intersetcion with multiple options.

      For years it worked, now we need to add a disclaimer, possibly in 2 languages.

      i always obeye the speed limit signs, even if it only says “55”. Does it mean maximum speed? does it mean minimum speed? Does it mean anything with speed (most speed signs only display a number). Not sure, but I’m not even from the US but could figure it out.

  • avatar
    Rod Panhard

    I’m particularly fond of the offer to make a deal…

    “Watch for vehicles.”

    It really depends on the the watch, or it depends on the vehicle, right? They make some pretty expensive watches these days.

  • avatar

    The instructions are in English, defeating the purpose of explaining the pictograms to dumb non English speakers. Dumb English speakers will do ok, but they would have been fine with walk/don’t walk.

    • 0 avatar

      I live in an area that attracts large numbers of non-English speaking foreign tourists. I want to do everything possible to help them spend their money. Nevermind the fact that most of them probably write and speak English better than locals.

    • 0 avatar

      If you don’t speak English it might take a little longer but you’ll figure out the cross signal.

      I vote for crosswalks like in the Netherlands that play a beat and it changes when you can cross. No sign telling you that but, it takes two seconds to figure out.

    • 0 avatar

      Foreigners don’t just blindly march out into the cross-walk with that oh-so-American entitlement mentality of “pedestrians have the right of way”. That’s just not done in the rest of the world.

      You certainly don’t hear about a lot of tourists getting run over at cross-walks in the States.

      • 0 avatar

        With the whole non-English speaking thing…

        If I am going to a foreign country. I generally try to learn some basic phrases (tourist language) to help me get around. I don’t just march blindly in and complain (in gibberish) that I can’t read stuff. I would think most people would do this too and it really shouldn’t be a problem.

        • 0 avatar

          But why make it hard when this can be a deadly mistake. Most of the common things like bathrooms, exits for buildings, etc have a standard symbol because it makes everyone’s life easier.

  • avatar

    Count down panels visible to drivers are better at reducing red-light running than cameras.

    • 0 avatar

      Absolutely. Here in NYC, these new countdown walk signs are everywhere. I find that knowing what my chances of getting through an intersection greatly reduce the stress, both as a driver and a pedestrian. What’s not to like?

    • 0 avatar

      Actually, I was thinking about saying something about the countdown numbers being a nice driving aid. Unfortunately, there isn’t any consistent use. Some countdown to when the light turns yellow, others countdown till the red. Still, it’s nice to know when you have a few seconds to make it through the intersection.

      • 0 avatar

        Ugh. In my little VA college town where I drive a transit bus part-time, the Training Dept. encourages this thinking. “Use the countdown as a guide to how much time the green light is in your favor and you’ll never run a red..” they say. On Main Street each block has different pattern of when the countdown begins. It took me a few months to memorize each intersection on my route. Until then I had to field many a complaint that a “shaggy bearded jack wagon done run a red in 40 footer again” Kinda hard to deny such a claim when your bus has number in giant black printing on all four sides.

  • avatar

    I’m astonished they’re not also in Spanish.

  • avatar

    I’ve always kinda felt that these things happen when elected officials appoint unqualified people who then rely on untested acedemic theorists to interact with legal review departments to come up with a solution to a problem that is then voted on by committee. After that, it’s vetted in a public information session and revised accordingly.

    So this is what you get.

    as an example, I would like to cite the AASHTO bridge design code, which in 1944, was 261 pages hard bound 1/2″ thick and printed on 6″ x 9″ paper. The most brilliant engieers of our age used that book or one like it to design some of the most incredible structures you have (or will ever) see.

    These days, AASHTO is a 14″ thick 8 1/2″ x 11″ three volume set of over 2000 pages, and you need pretty much all of it to design a friggin overpass.

    “start crossing” indeed.

  • avatar

    I work for a major Munincipality and the dunderheads in charge of anyhing are simply amazing ~ only slighly dumber than the fools who every day step off the curb without even _glancing_ at the on coming traffic .

    To some extent the problems are exascerbated because the wise people won’t get sucked into the responsability of ordering the signs etc. , in addition to the chicken little mentality of ” but we’ll get sued ! ”
    that pervades City Hall .


  • avatar
    Kyree S. Williams

    This is along the same vein as the lawnmower stickers that say “Do not place your hands underneath a running lawnmower”. It’s our litigation-crazy society that has manufacturers and municipalities covering themselves like this. In many other countries, you’d get laughed at for walking across the street out of turn, not told to sue everyone within a five-mile radius…

    I’m deathly afraid of jaywalkers in certain areas, especially at night. Not that I would be nonchalant about hitting someone with two tons of steel, but why should I be liable for someone that wears dark clothing at night and strolls—not runs, but strolls!—across the street in the middle of traffic?

    • 0 avatar


      Check- no one should be liable for hitting someone jaywalking in dark clothing at night but so often the driver is sued anyhow.

      Separate but related point:
      I once read a vintage “safe driving” library book that was authored and printed in a less open-minded time.

      The book had such recommendations as “adding lap seat belts to a car” for better safety, etc.

      A chapter of the book made points about safe driving at night, one of which included paying extra attention in areas where “Negros” lived because their exposed skin did not reflect light like “whites” exposed skin did.

      When I read it, I had to physically stop reading the passage and flip to the front of the book re-verify the copyright date which was the late 1950s to early 1960s. If someone were to write and publish that statement today, they would be quickly taken to task. I chalked the passage up to the historical context and entered a pencil written notation next to the paragraphs stating the same thing for future readers who might check the book out of that library.

      I am glad that people have changed their attitudes and beliefs from what was then to what is now…


      • 0 avatar


        I live in a neighborhood with lots of orthodox Jews. The men typically wear black suits and black hats. An African-American friend of mine once said the me after driving over to my place, “Man, you just can’t see them when driving at night. It’s even worse than in my neighborhood.”

        • 0 avatar

          Yeah, I don’t care what color someones skin is or what clothes they’re wearing– you could be dressed in a white gown– it’s not going to do jack if light isn’t on it.

        • 0 avatar

          That’s a riot!!!

          Bugs me all the bicycle riders at night in Cambridge who have neither lights, nor light colored clothing. Me, when I’m on my bicycle I wear one of those lime green jerseys that’s visible from the international space station. (I used to ride at night, and when I did, along with the lights, I threw a white t-shirt over whatever I was wearing. I’ve always had white helmets.

        • 0 avatar

          I totally forgot to log in yesterday. But you won the internets yesterday. I was LMAO when I read that at work.

  • avatar

    My wife often has to have pictograms explained to her. She says it’s because she is not functionally illiterate.

  • avatar

    Because it’s cheaper to put a sign up than fix a broken or ineffective traffic light system…
    BTW I would be all about ISO standard symbols. Not only are some people not English speaking but some are illiterate. KISS… keep it sim… you got it ;-)

  • avatar

    Lets just put up crossing gates and be done with it.

  • avatar

    Thats nothing, out here it used to be that our main stoplight actually talked, so once you push the button you had to stand there with a vaguely Speak n Spell voice repeating “Wait! Wait! Wait! Walk Sign Is On!”, thankfully they’ve silenced it.

  • avatar

    I’ve been crossing streets with pictogram crossing signs all my life, and there are no explanations written. Oh my god, I must be dead!!!

  • avatar

    The signs are an effort to discourage pedestrians from entering the crosswalk when the “don’t walk” symbol is flashing, and to show the pedestrian that the traffic lights are for vehicles. (In other words, it’s possible to cross illegally on foot, even when there is a green light.)

    Judging from some of the comments here, the signs aren’t very effective at getting this point across.

    • 0 avatar

      You’d be lucky to even have them USE the button. I can’t tell you how many people just cross, with no care. If someone is waiting in the center turn lane and the computers say “well, no pedestrians: go ahead” but nope– little buggers right there. Happened to my brother in law and the teenaged brat kicked the bumper saying “it’s my turn!” Uh… NO! If we ran a red light and hit them, it’d be a major offense. They run their “red light,” what can we do?

      Call me an inhumane jerk who has little value for life if you want, that’s not my intention or feeling– I do NOT want to make someone have to suffer for something so stupid and petty. What IS my feeling is if you are the wrongly self-confident/entitled pedestrian who apparently does NOT care about your well-being and safety– fair game. Friggin’ Darwin, baby. And why not? We have to pay for those pedestrian safety measures on modern cars anyway, why not use it? A couple bruises on their calves won’t kill ’em.

    • 0 avatar

      Explaining that a flashing red hand means “don’t enter the crosswalk” is about the only excuse for the sign. Still, that’s the kind of thing we used to teach five year olds.

      • 0 avatar

        In practice, it’s not at all uncommon for American pedestrians to refer to the traffic lights, rather than the walk/don’t walk signals, when crossing intersections. If you’ve driven in urban areas in the US, then it’s not all unusual to see this.

        Traffic engineers would like the pedestrians to heed the walk/ don’t walk signals because that would allow drivers to complete their turns and clear the intersections before the lights turn red.

        But when pedestrians see a don’t walk signal and green light simultanously, they will often choose to enter the intersection and justify that decision on the basis that the traffic light was green.

        Those pedestrians aren’t really concerned about the right of way of the vehicle traffic that’s turning; they would rather cross than wait. The signs are a fairly useless effort to control pedestrian behavior, as most road users (drivers, bicyclists and pedestrians alike) are inclined to rationalize any behavior that permits them to go and to avoid stopping.

  • avatar

    “…but am I the only person who finds the instructions at the bottom of the sign, “To Cross Push Button” with an arrow pointing to the side, a little confusing? ”


  • avatar

    My mommy and daddy taught me how to cross the street when I was 4, it hasn’t gotten any more complicated in the following 50 years. I cannot help but think that after seeing these instructions which belabor the obvious that somewhere in the U.S. some do good City council is going to require training and licensing for pedestrians.

    • 0 avatar

      Something happened since then, it seems. Lets get into pedestrians around times where the sun is rising/setting, for example. Sure, stand in the shadows we who are driving into the sun can’t see you in. Step out, still in that shadow and us not stopped for you. No common sense with people these days: don’t cross if that car doesn’t stop, and be doubly sure that someone isn’t impatient and driving AROUND the stopped car (they do it here).

      Even before cell-phones and iPods were ravaging high schools (I was in graduating a couple years after they started becoming a problem), I’d see the occasional student step into the street without a single search in any direction– step out and keep going, looking at their feet (emo/goth/whatev). Now, it’s an even more common site, but more and more electronics are involved.

    • 0 avatar

      Walk in a city and tell me how hard it is. Guessing if there is a protected left turn or unprotected turn is enough to make you realize that the signs can be very helpful to both the pedestrians and drivers. That does not even cover the blind intersections that are caused by buildings.

  • avatar

    Heard an interesting story from a couple of decades back: In ethnic neighborhoods of Chicago, the new immigrants were so determined to obey America’s laws that they would stop cold when the sign changed to “DON’T WALK,” forcing a change in the signs.

  • avatar

    Stupid? No.

    Sue crazy. Yes.

  • avatar

    I agree that the crosswalk instructions/arrows are confusing. We have them all over my town, and the most confusing part is not shown by your picture: Usually there are two buttons and two arrows on the post because it’s a four way intersection. The arrow points to the way you want to cross, but because it points that way the button and sign associated with that crosswalk is counterintuitively on the side of the post, not facing you as you stand ready to cross. Facing you is the arrow and button for the OTHER crosswalk to your right or left.

  • avatar

    The phenomenon with the crosswalk lights is similar to how Yahoo, and all the other email providers are replacing buttons that say what they’re for with icons, and even more annoying.

    Anyone coming to the US should have the respect to learn the language (or if as a tourist, enough to get by) and learn how the crosswalks work.

  • avatar

    In my mind, the advantage of pictograms is not that they can be understood by the illiterate or people not understanding the local language (whatever it may be), but rather that recognizing one symbol (the pictogram) is faster and less cognitively taxing than recignizing several symbols (letters) and interpreting them (reading). For pedestrians it may not make a difference, but when driving at speed i think it is safer to have pictograms than text on roadsigns.

  • avatar

    In my mind, the advantage of pictograms is not that they can be understood by the illiterate or people not understanding the local language (whatever it may be), but rather that recognizing one symbol (the pictogram) is faster and less cognitively taxing than recognizing several symbols (letters) and interpreting them (reading). For pedestrians it may not make a difference, but when driving at speed i think it is safer to have pictograms than text on roadsigns.

  • avatar

    They need signs that flash, “run like hell, or I’ll run you over.”

  • avatar

    The people that need these additional explanations probably can’t read them anyway. (lol)

  • avatar

    There is a very specific reason why they went from “Walk/Don’t Walk” to pictograms – the large number of non-English speakers in this country (and this goes far beyond the immigration debate – think of all the international tourists in NYC, for example).

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