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Warning! Moronic road signs ahead. By Matthew Norman

Blog | By Matthew Norman | Sep 19, 2023

Admirers of the highest classical culture will fondly recall Clash of the Titans, the 1981 filmic meisterwork in which Laurence Olivier’s Zeus and his fellow Olympians look imperiously down on humanity, and use their limitless powers to manipulate the affairs of mankind.

The identity of this modern deity may never become known beyond the screen-filled room in which they toy with mortal events.

But somewhere, in some municipal, modern Olympus elegantly styled after the Lubyanka, there is a Zeus du jour with a penchant for torturing motorists with palpably false traffic information.

There could in fact be dozens of them dotted all over the land. If only for narrative simplicity, however, I prefer to believe in a lone deity responsible for every fraudulent illuminated road sign that plagues a motorway or A road.

What drives this mischievous creature is less a matter for us than for a phalanx of world-ranked psychoanalysts, split evenly into three teams and working in eight-hour watches around the clock.

Whatever the motivation (psychosis; boredom; the weird compulsion to punish an inferior species), these pixillated messages are increasingly divorced from reality.

Long before a recent nightmare on the M4, suspicions had been raised by such old favourites as: ’50 mph: Congestion Ahead.’ You must have experienced yourself the delight of spending an hour travelling at the marginally slower speed of 0.7 mph – only to discover, the moment you reach the end of the queue to find the road ahead clear, that the queue had been generated neither by weight of traffic nor an accident.

The sole reason for the congestion was that a sign warning of congestion had caused motorists to slow to a crawl. One appreciates a cute self-fulfilling prophecy, of course, not to mention the irony

matthew norman

inherent in this motoring version of iatrogenesis (a medical disorder is caused solely by medical treatment).

Recently, however, the deity has taken to egregious taunting with warnings styled not as statements of fact, but as vague claims for which the god of motorway signage has plausible deniability.

‘50 mph,’ read one lately encountered on the M3. ‘Report of lane closure ahead.’

In this context, ‘report’ is the most vexing euphemism to afflict the language since the Radio Times took to describing the output of sitcom writer Roy Clarke (Last of the Summer Wine; that excrescence starring Patricia Routledge as a pantomime snob) as ‘gentle comedy’ – the word ‘gentle’ standing proxy here for the word ‘no’. What ‘report of lane closure ahead’ appears to mean is: ‘No lane closure ahead, but I’m bored witless stuck here doing nothing, and I want you to know how I feel.’

We know that ‘report’ is a lie for two reasons. First, the presence of a camera every three inches on motorways means that no ‘report’ would be required by anyone with access to: a) screens showing live footage; and b) the miracle of eyesight.

Secondly, not long ago on the M4, I saw this: ‘40 mph: report of wild animals on road ahead.’

The commitment to fairness dictates an admission. Technically, it is possible that the westbound M4 (or, come to that, its easterly twin) will be invaded by rampaging hordes of wild animals. A

Technically, it is possible the M4 will

be invaded by hordes of wild animals

truck close to concluding its long trek from the Serengeti might be involved in the pile-up that causes its rear door to spring open, releasing dozens of big cats on to the hard shoulder.

More likely perhaps is a breakout from nearby Windsor Safari Park. Fans of the Planet of the Apes franchise will be familiar with the uprising led by Caesar, the pioneering talking chimp whose craving for social justice would eventually lead to Charlton Heston having that chilling epiphany on a New York beach.

One day, then, it is plausible that the inmate of a zoo – probably one of the higher primates, though conceivably the Spartacus of the hippo enclosure – will spearhead the mass escape and beastly invasion of the M4 that would justify such a message.

The recent afternoon on which the sign was observable, on the picturesque outskirts of Slough, was not that day.

Once again, anyone charged with observing traffic video would have struggled not to notice a herd of wildebeest sweeping majestically along the middle lane. And, even if so, it’s a fairly safe bet that one of the countless over-sharers of Twitter would have mentioned the appearance, on the bonnet of their Lexus, of a giraffe, a pair of ostentatiously mating mountain gorillas and a freshwater crocodile.

It is of course utterly futile to rail against this addition to the myriad horrors of attempting to travel through this miserable country.

Those whom the gods wish to destroy they first make mad, as, I think, Sophocles, put it.

But it’s hard to avoid the feeling that, in the field of deity-generated, road- related horror, Oedipus got off lightly with nothing worse than killing his father at the crossroads and the maternal coupling which ensued from that.