“Signs, signs, everywhere there’s signs
Blocking out the scenery, breaking my mind
‘Do this!’ ‘Don’t do that!’ Can’t you read the sign?”
–Les Emmerson, Five Man Electrical Band
State Road 38 is closed just to the right of my driveway. Reflective orange-and-white barriers block the roadway itself and both shoulders. A large sign says, “Road Closed.”
Beyond the barrier, the road is gone—stripped all the way down to the Indiana clay. Sewer pipes lie across the dirt. Construction equipment moves to and fro as crews do their work.
For miles approaching the closure, there are warnings. A detour is clearly marked. And a quarter mile before the “Road Closed” barrier in front of my house, there’s a “final warning” barrier, one that residents may weave around to get to our homes. The sign on this one says, “Road Closed to Thru Traffic.”
But every day, scores of motorists pass this final warning. They drive the quarter mile to the full barricade.
They stare at the sign, the missing road, the construction equipment. Then they turn around in my driveway and head back the way they came.
I wonder what goes through these people’s heads.
Are they illiterate?
Do they think the signs lie—that the road is actually open despite the warnings and barriers that say it’s closed?
Did they read “Harry Potter” or “The Chronicles of Narnia” as children? Do they think there will be a secret passageway if only they can find the magic closet or Marauder’s Map?
Are they sheep, religiously following a GPS device that says, “Go this way come hell or high water?”
Are they engaging in some act of civil disobedience, unwilling to let some “bone-headed, sign-hanging government bureaucrat” tell them where they can and cannot go?
Or do they simply believe the rules do not apply to them?
I have a hunch it’s the last reason. My guess is based not on empirical evidence, but on years of observation.
Take driving, for example.
If the sign says, “Stay right except to pass,” the slowest motorists will invariably drive in the left lane. The rule does not apply to them. They are, in fact, oblivious not only to the law, but also to the stacked-up traffic behind them and the people flashing their lights, honking their horns and passing on the right to get around them.
If the sign says, “Left lane closed ahead,” the fastest drivers will remain in the left lane as long as possible. They will pass as many vehicles as they can before cutting in line at the last minute and further jamming traffic for everyone behind them. They are, apparently, more important than everyone else, so the lane-closure rule does not apply to them.
If the sign says, “Do not text and drive,” many people will text and drive. They are, after all, in the 90 percent who fancy themselves above average. And because their multitasking skills are superior to others’, distracted-driver rules do not apply to them.
This phenomenon is not limited to motoring, of course. When I started working in health and safety promotion decades ago, I learned the biggest barrier health educators face is, “It-can’t-happen-to-me.”
There might be overwhelming evidence that seat belts save lives. There might be signs that say, “Buckle up. It’s the law.” But many still figure, “It can’t happen to me, so the rules don’t apply.”
Condoms might protect against HIV/AIDS. There might be evidence dating back 25 years. But plenty of sexually active folks still believe, “It can’t happen to me, so the rules don’t apply.”
Cigarettes might kill up to half their customers when used as directed. There might be warnings on every pack. But plenty of smokers think, “It can’t happen to me, so the rules don’t apply.”
Students plagiarize because they think the rules don’t apply.
Taxpayers shirk their responsibility to one another because they think the rules don’t apply.
Government and corporate officials dodge ethics requirements, thinking the rules don’t apply.
Now, I learned to question authority at the age of 20 months, when my parents second-guessed a pediatrician’s misdiagnosis of my childhood cancer and saved my life. I’ve played the skeptic ever since. And you’ll find no one more committed to the most expedient means to an end.
But sometimes, the sign says “Road Closed” because the road is closed. And sometimes, the sign says, “Turn back” because the light at the end of the tunnel is an oncoming train. And sometimes, the sign says, “Beware of dog” because the little fellow will bite you.
Defiant or enterprising as we may be, the signs and rules are usually there for a reason, and trying to circumvent them is nothing more than a waste of time, a waste of money, and a sign that we’re not, in fact, universally above average.•
Hetrick is an Indianapolis-based writer, speaker and public relations consultant. His column appears twice a month. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.