The power of signs

IMG_1868 by Bobby Hidy, on Flickr.

One of the most ridiculed new powers proposed in the Smith Commission’s report today is about road traffic signs::

66. Remaining powers to change speed limits will be devolved to the Scottish Parliament. Powers over all road traffic signs in Scotland will also be devolved.

However, if this really devolves everything to do with road signs to Scotland, it actually is much more significant than most people think.

Firstly, as anybody who has driven through continental Europe in a car knows, nothing signals that you’re in a new country more than when the road signs change. Of course there are international standards these days that prevent them from becoming completely unrecognisable, but the layout, the font and the colours together provide a powerful subliminal message that tells you which country you’re in. So if Scotland for instance changed the typeface from Transport (as used in Cyprus, Denmark, Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Portugal and the rUK) to DIN 1451 (as used in Germany, the Czech Republic and Latvia) or SNV (as used in Belgium, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Kosovo, Luxembourg, Macedonia, Montenegro, Romania, Slovenia and Serbia), it would make a difference to drivers crossing the border — as James Kelly put it, ‘nothing says “London rule” quite like that font.’ (See an overview of road sign typefaces here.) At the same time, Scotland could also swap the use of blue and green backgrounds to mirror the usage in Sweden, Finland, Italy and other countries.

Secondly, I presume metrification could be completed, too, using both the powers to change speed limits and the signage powers. All speed limits and distances could simply be given in kilometres instead of miles. This would make Scotland stand out very strongly as a modern, European country, compared to the rUK.

Finally, these new powers could also be used to introduce signs in Scots, not just in English and Gaelic. However, this would probably be best done as part of an overall strengthening of the support of Scotland’s biggest minority language.

It’s clear that if this new power is used in full, it might actually turn out to have been one of the most important proposals made by the Smith Commission.

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