Have we reached peak traffic sign?

Last evening, the new Green Line recorded its first car-train accident since service officially opened over the weekend. That didn’t take long.

Both train and car were traveling toward Minneapolis on University at Hampden when the car — of course — made an illegal left turn into the path of the train. It was the fifth accident since Green Line testing started in February and in every case the car’s driver did something wrong.

Usually it involves ignoring traffic signs or traffic signals.

How is this possible? Consider this picture (admittedly not a good one). You’ve got your red lights. You’ve got your picture of a train that illuminates above you at the intersection when the train has the right of way. In the next block, there’s a sign telling you you’re driving next to railroad tracks, because — apparently — the railroad tracks you’re driving next to don’t tell you that.


How do you miss any of those?

Maybe, it’s because you don’t see them anymore.

Out in my neck of the woods recently, traffic engineers started removing some signs. Why? Because there are so many of them now, people have stopped paying attention to them.

Over the winter, for example, a flashing 35 mph sign installed in a school zone was pulled because the drivers went much faster through the zone.

“To be perfectly candid, that [flashing] sign didn’t change drivers’ behavior. It didn’t slow them down. The data shows that,” Washington County traffic engineer Don Thiesen told the Star Tribune last winter.

Maybe there are too many signs warning us of things we don’t really need to be warned about, making our brains immune to the ones we should pay attention to.

I actually stopped, turned around, and had another look at this sign yesterday.


At first, I thought it was telling me I needed to turn left at the light. But it’s actually warning me the road turns to the left — slightly to the left — after the stop light. So did the six subsequent arrow signs.

But it wasn’t a hairpin turn and, really, only a Formula One driver really needs to know that the road bends slightly to the left.

The explosion of traffic signs also causes an arms race of ways to get your attention. Engineers add orange flags to them to get your attention (acknowledging that the sign itself won’t). Stop signs now get flashing lights and they work. A recent study found that the number of people plowing through stop signs dropped 30 percent where the LED-embedded signs were installed. People simply stopped seeing the signs that were at the same intersections earlier.

A few weeks ago I went through a red light at a downtown Minneapolis intersection. My brain — I guess — saw the light at the next intersection turn green. A few days later, I saw someone do the same thing in downtown Saint Paul.

None of this is to let drivers off the hook when it comes to responsible driving. I wouldn’t recommend getting rid of red lights or stop signs. But we might acknowledge that traffic engineers are overloading the brain with too much information and think about weeding out those signs we don’t really need.

Related Green Line: Twin City Sidewalks: No Bike Parking along the Green Line is Absurd.

  • Paul Weimer

    Maybe there are too many, but I think the accidents with the green line reveal a dirty secret–lots of us are scofflaws. We violate speed limits, stop signs, run red lights.

    The stakes are just higher when you add a train into the mix.

    • kcmarshall

      I’m a resident of the Midway area and the extra left turn on red is a time honored tradition in the neighborhood. I marvel at the folks who think they have the right to gun it through someone else’s green.

      To be fair (and honest), it is tough to turn left from University to cross streets now. At some times of day, only 3 cars can make a left before the light changes. That can be frustrating when you’re the 7th car back.

      I think you’re right that the train changes the equation. Hopefully people figure that out quickly.

      • MG

        the way it is set up there with the multiple stations and train between the different directions of cars is totally confusing. I think Metro Transit would totally benefit getting feed back from residents about what sort of signage they think would be most effective, or what intersections are most confusing. Utilize the combined mindpower of the public!

    • Dave

      I don’t know. Have you seen the signs and roadways at these train intersections? They aren’t simple.

      • Jessie

        I think “watch for the train and don’t cut in front of it” shouldn’t be too hard of a concept to grasp.

  • Jessie

    I think there are a lot of signs, but at the same time when you’re behind the wheel of a two ton vehicle shouldn’t you be paying attention to the things that are telling you how to navigate the road you’re on?

  • jon

    near my place they put up a stop sign at Hamline and county rd I, turning the T intersection from a “cross traffic doesn’t stop” to a “all ways stop” last year… this year it is back to a cross traffic doesn’t stop… the only sign they put in that they didn’t take out was the flashing “traffic control change ahead”

    We also changed county 10 and silver lake to have the wonderful flashing yellow arrows with a sign that says left turn yield on flashing yellow arrow… because that is apparently better than left turn yield on green… though MN appeared to have an obsession with left (and now right) turn arrows since I moved here 15 years ago…. an obsession that has trained people in such a way that green means go, no matter if you are turning into oncoming traffic or not…

    I’ve seen 4 way stops installed because people can’t manage to work a 2 way stop… and more and more 4 way stops are becoming lights because people can’t work the 4 way stops…

    As ever intersection becomes a controlled intersection, I can only say I can’t wait for self driving cars.

    I’d also like to point out how worthless some signs are at any given time… “Beware of ice on bridge!” Might be helpful in feb. but kinda worthless right now.

  • Jack Ungerleider

    My guess is that signs like the “bend in road” sign you feature are all about liability. All it takes is one inattentive driver to to fly through that section of road and roll their SUV because of the bend to get the appropriate governmental agency to add a notification sign. If its their then they have warned you. If you choose to ignore the warning then its your fault not theirs.

    • Neil

      And/or maybe at night, with the snow piled high it’s harder to see.

  • Dave

    I seem to remember an article many years ago about this happening in (I think) the Netherlands. One town decided to remove ALL traffic signs because there were too many. It sounded like a somewhat successful experiment; people apparently drove safer.

  • kevinfromminneapolis

    With no crossing arms to prevent you from entering the tracks, some of the track-street intersections on University aren’t easy. In this case, with the train and car heading the same directions the driver would have had to look behind him or her before turning, something that is unnatural in the rest of our driving experiences.

    The worst signs, I think, are do not enter signs that are positioned in a way that you can see them when you are going the right direction.

    • Kristin Grimes Standafer

      Not true. In this case (the last accident) all the driver had to do was wait for the green left arrow and NOT make an illegal left turn on a red arrow. (Also, there are signs that LIGHT UP in the intersection when a train is coming, so you don’t have to turn and look behind you…)

  • jb

    Time will tell if a train with all its expense and hupla is a better way to transport people vs a bus on old fashion concrete with a horn and brakes. I would submit the latter would have been sufficient.

    • MG

      people like trains better than busses. there is no question that the train is going to take the exact same route. no re-routes because of construction, etc. It’s also easier to board a train if you have a disability that requires wheels as you don’t have to step up or down to board a train.
      Have you ever ridden the line that goes from downtown to the MOA? People like yourself said the same thing about that train and I’m pretty sure that actual ridership blew any predictions out of the water.

  • betsy

    The trains don’t magically appear at intersections and there is no way one could be hiding in your blind spot. You don’t need a sign to tell you there is a train approaching, it’s massive and right next to you. If you decide to turn left in front of an on-coming train, you do not have the brains to be driving in the first place.

  • Jim Flindt

    Want to Know Why Truck Drivers Always seem to be in a Bad mood? Car drivers Ignoring the signs. We are PAID to pay attention, and we simply cannot believe everyone else DOESN’T! So, As the Author Stated, There Really IS no excuse…Put down the Electronic Device, Fast Food Item and Leave the Kids Alone, AND DRIVE YOUR VEHICLE!!!

  • Farhiyo Nor

    people need more attention