Why traffic signs should not be harmonized

Traffic signs should be harmonized all over Europe, according to road safety experts. They say it is important for roads to be self-explaining, which means that people driving on them immediately understand which rules apply and which actions to take. They have a point, don’t they? Still, I do not fully agree with them. To show you why, I am taking you on a tour around Europe, to experience some zebra crossings.

Let’s start off in the UK, more specifically, in Bristol. When living in this city for eight months I was thinking a lot about the local traffic. One of the most interesting things I found was that as a pedestrian you are totally non-existent for a motorist, until…

You are walking down the street, approaching the next zebra crossing. Unless they can read your mind, no one can observe that you are actually planning to cross. The car next to you already slows down while you have not reached the crossing yet. It stops, so you can cross safely.

I can tell you, this happened to me quite a few times. Or at least they always stopped when I wanted to cross. A very pleasant experience. Keep that in mind while we are go overseas.

You are standing at a zebra crossing. And you have been for a while. Traffic is flying past, it is one of those busy three lane roads, and you wish there would have been traffic lights. You are in Madrid, capital of Spain. A local girl shows up next to you, and boldly starts crossing the street. Is she out of her mind? No. The approaching motorists all slam there brakes, and stop just before the zebra crossing without making a fuss about it. Aha, so that is what you should do. Put one foot on the zebra and they will stop.

Now before we go on, forget what you have just learned, or you can get yourself killed. Because we are now going to Amsterdam.

You are standing at a zebra crossing. Most of the cars don’t stop. But suddenly, one does! You start crossing, but before you know it cyclist start making their way around you, maybe even yelling at you. Aha, it is not only motorists to be aware of here, the place is packed with cyclists who hate to use their brakes. Locals might tell you it is best to ignore the zebra crossings and cross the street anywhere you like, whenever you find a gap in the traffic.

So, there we are. Zebra crossings might look the same, they are not the same. Their meaning very much depends on the culture of the country or city they are situated in. The same could be true for traffic signs. The idea about harmonizing traffic signs is that they are recognizable, and you know what to expect. I would say that traffic signs can be very well understandable without being harmonized. They may just be a little bit different. But that little bit might just raise your awareness to the level you need for a potentially different situation than you expect.

You can’t beat the culture out of a country with traffic signs.


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