Well, What Do You Expect?

March 16, 2009

Driving up the A1 can be pretty tedious and it’s surprising where the mind can wander – while concentrating on the road of course. That’s exactly what I was doing when I noticed something which immediately had me thinking about delivery and expectations.

Of course, anyone involved in the successful delivery of goods, or services, or anything else, will have realised that it’s essential for the supplier and customers to reach a common expectation about what is to be delivered. Under-delivery is an obvious problem, but what about over-delivery – is it a good thing? In practice, over-delivery is a two edged sword. The customer may well be delighted to get more, or better, than they paid for but, by contrast, the next adequate delivery will look like  a drop in quality or in service unless the supplier manages the situation so that the over-delivery is viewed by the customer as a special event. Expectations need to be recognised, considered, and managed.

Back to the A1. Like many of the UK’s major roads, the fixed traffic signs are supplemented by expensive matrix signs which were originally intended to display warning text or symbols. In the past, the blank faces of these signs used to offer mute reassurance that all was normal on the signed road and others nearby. When this situation changed, a message appeared on the signs. The driver’s expectation was that a blank  sign indicated all was well while a lit up sign was a warning. The sheer simplicity of this allowed the signs to function with minimal distraction of the driver’s attention from the traffic. It also allowed the signs to exercise their warning function from a far greater distance than reading distance.

Now a driver can no longer expect that a lit sign is communicating information about current road conditions. It may:

  • Distract attention with wordy nannying platitudes – ‘Tiredness kills – Take a break’
  • Confuse with lack of precision – ’21 miles and 20 mins to J36′. For whom?  A caravan limited to 50 mph or a 60 mph lorry or a car going at the 70 mph speed limit?
  • Imply an undefined problem – ’15 miles and 20 mins to J13′. On a 70 mph road? What’s the holdup? What are they not telling us?
  • Lie! ‘Slow traffic queuing ahead’ remaining lit long after the problem has cleared.
  • Assume that local problems affect the entire road network. ‘Debris on the road’ without a matched sign indicating that the danger area has been passed.

On the surface all of this may seem like just another of the many factors which can make driving in this country a less than pleasant experience. But it’s much more fundamental. Drivers used to expect matrix signs to deliver warnings of current local problems. Over time, the operators have become sloppy about delivering that function so that information can no longer be relied on as current and accurate. Worse still, decisions have been taken to use the signs for several completely different purposes with little or no regard for the context in which the displayed messages are being delivered. The mute reassurance role has been lost completely as a lit sign can no longer be assumed to convey a warning. And the genuine messages are so outnumbered by the noise that they cease to register with drivers.

The taxpayer’s costly investment in the network of maintenance signs has been wasted. And it’s all because of people who thought their particular agendas were so important they could abandon the expected safety function of the matrix signs and ignore all considerations of context and good practice.