Driving is Child’s Play: Road Edition

Some say that driving is difficult. Videos of automotive operator error pop up every day. Here are some ways modern infrastructure is designed to make driving easy.

This post originally appeared on July 23, 2015.


Let’s start by looking at children’s toys. When a kid’s version of a grown-up item is designed, there two major differences. A toy phone is a good example:


1. Everything is super-sized.

Just look at those buttons. They’re huge! You and I could navigate the tiny keyboard of a Blackberry with minimal misspellings. But children are still practicing their motor skills, and this helps them select one button at a time. By moving their arm towards a number, the kid stands a good chance of pressing the button they were aiming for. As they develop more skill in using their elbow, wrist, and fingers, precision becomes much easier. But for now, large features make hitting the target a cakewalk.

2. Colors!

The other thing that stands out to make an object instantly recognizable as a toy is its array of colors. Bright, distinctive colors too, and kids love this. It also helps with learning. Before they learn their numbers, kids start recognizing colors. Even if they haven’t developed the language skills to name those colors, they can tell the difference between red and blue.


Even as our tastes mature, bright colors still help greatly to draw instant visual attention. Colors continue to be extremely helpful to adults. When reading statistical graphs and charts, color-coding helps the eye jump to the data you are looking for.


What does this have to do with driving? A rainbow of reasons.

With a large degree of consistency, traffic control devices are color-coded in the US. And the colors are organized in a natural fashion to help you find the information you’re looking for.

  • White signs are regulatory; they’re important and require your attention. That new lane that appears on the right? It’s just a right turn (only) lane, so don’t get excited. Speed limit and passing zone signs are also white. There is no greater contrast than white and black when it comes to signage. Can’t miss it; don’t ignore it.
  • Red is a color that traditionally symbolizes danger. Fire and blood are natural elements that support this. Serious injury could await one who ignores a stop, yield, or do-not-enter sign.
  • Yellow catches one’s attention in a similar way, but its meaning is toned down. Danger is still possible, but not likely, so yellow is used for warning signs. Deer crossing? Not right now. The bridge is 14’8”? Yeah, I think I can fit.
  • Other colors are less critical, but help to codify the information they provide. Green guide signs help you find your way. Blue service signs lead to hospitals, food, gas, lodging, etc.

FUN FACT: In 1966, China decided red was the color of progress, and swapped the meanings of red and green on traffic signals. It didn’t last long.


And let’s not forget everyone’s favorite color orange... Just ask Todd Yohn.

Everything’s biiiig in Texas

Like children’s toys, modern roads and accompanying features are also built to generous size.



Most US highways have a minimum lane width of 12 feet. Sorry, was that a typo? I meant to say TWELVE feet. Most large trucks are just over 8 feet wide, and most of us drive cars that are 6 feet or less in width. That’s merely half of the lane! How long would you guess the broken lines in the road are? Would you believe close to ten feet?



You see that bozo who stopped at the red light waaaay past the stop line? He’s even beyond the crosswalk. But he’s not blocking cross-traffic. How is that possible? Why is the stop line so far back? Intersections are designed with extra room for turning left and right, and if you ever drive anything with a trailer, you know you need that extra room. But that’s not the only reason; visibility is a major factor, too.



More optical illusions here. From the driver seat, a stop sign might appear to stand about 6 feet tall. But walk up to it and you will find that it’s closer to 8, plus the street sign mounted above it.


A regular-size speed limit or “pass with care” sign appears to be the size of an 8.5” x 11” piece of paper, but the smaller ones are actually more than double that- 18” x 24”.


Larger signs appear to be the size of, say, a suitcase, but you would have a hard time fitting one into your car (um- don’t ask). Some freeway signs are made up of multiple large sheets. Although the size of these signs don’t affect your driving, being able to read them quickly from a distance allows the driver more time to make decisions, like choosing the proper lane.


We don’t need this rainbow of colors, but they are extremely helpful, even if only on a subliminal level. And the vehicles most of us drive don’t need all this extra room, but it comes in handy. It can be hard to drive in a perfectly straight line, in the exact center of the lane. But preventing wrecks and keeping your car in one lane is easy enough. Why, it’s elementary.

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