Warning Signs

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On the 7th of July 1995 local farmer Donal Pender and his son were traveling between Aughrim village and Cappataggle Cross on the main Galway to Dublin road when a jeep, traveling in the opposite direction, skidded across the road and collided with their car. Donal Pender died later in hospital. He was forty-one years of age. Two years previously another man died in a similar accident less than a hundred yards from where Mr Pender was killed. Following Mr Pender’s death his neighbours placed twenty-seven, four foot long wooden crosses at various points along the eight-kilometre stretch of winding road. Each of the little whitecrosses, with black ribbon attached, marked the spot where somebody had lost their life. According to Joe Murphy, who made the crosses in his workshop, the crosses were primarily for the benefit of politicians and government ministers traveling west to attend the Galway Races, the intention being to embarrass Galway Co Council into improving the road.

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The local residents wanted the road widened and straightened for as one local man observed, ‘The road into and out of the bad stretch was very good and drivers, used to traveling comfortably at speed, were reluctant to suddenly slow down’. The Co Council said it didn’t have sufficient funds available immediately to up-grade the road but it was quick to remove the crosses. A council engineer explained the decision to the Connaught Telegraph, ‘…they [the crosses] were in themselves a distraction and a hazard, and so had to be removed immediately’. He maintained that the Council could not allow signs to be placed ‘ad-hoc’ along the public roadway and that the existing signs on the road were adequate. He continued, ‘If the rules of the road and various regulations were obeyed, it was most unlikely any other accident would occur on the road’. In fact in the months following Mr Pender’s death the Council erected new larger road signs and re-surfaced the road.

Seven months after the death of Mr Pender the National Roads Authority announced that it had allocated £400,000 to make the road safer. However, the county engineer is reported as having said £400,000 would do ‘relatively little’ and that six to eight million punts were necessary to do a ‘proper job’. Worse still, the chairman of the protest committee was quoted at the time as saying that the part of the road earmarked by the Council for immediate improvement was in fact the best section. A week after the £400,000 was announced Mary Meagher, a mother of four, died after her car collided with another traveling in the opposite direction. The crash is reported to have happened on the exact spot where one of the first victims of the road had been killed some thirty years previously. Eight months later Billy Bell and Brian Cronhelm died after the cars in which they were traveling also collided into each other.

The Council’s initial response to the protest campaign was seen by many as officious and defensive. Of course it was the responsibility of motorists to obey the rules. But what of the blameless victims and what of the traumatic effect of the accidents on the local residents: Joe Murphy, for instance, had witnessed five deaths in six years. The Council’s initial response of the problem was clearly inadequate and it was followed by a more supportive, if somewhat unimaginative approach: the Council would simply replace the existing warning signs with larger ones. Unfortunately the new signs didn’t prevent the deaths of three more people. Indeed following the death of Mr Bell and Mr Cronhelm a spokesman for the National Roads Authority was quoted in the Connaught Tribune as wondering if warning signs solved anything, and said the Authority had stopped putting up the traditional Accident Black Spot signs because people become ‘immune’ to them.

Clearly, alternative ways of persuading drivers to slow down needed to be considered. Had local residents unwittingly found the answer or were their crosses just a dangerous distraction? Naturally, they wouldn’t be effective if they didn’t distract and, as each cross marked the location of a fatal accident, one would imagine their positioning served to identify the most dangerous parts of the road. Not that their placement conformed to any particular pattern. Approaching the latest bend one never knew when to expect the next cross. Emerging from what became known as the ‘killer stretch’ anxiety and trepidation were replaced by a sense of profound sadness. Residents, surprised at how effective the crosses were in persuading people to slow down, were quick to replace those removed by the Council – on one occasion a local Council employee even returned the crosses from the Council depot.

The Christian cross signifies death and the placing of a small white cross in the ground is understood as an act of remembrance. Thus the crosses may have been effective because they were perceived not as signs of protest or as an attempt to regulate drivers’ behavior but simply as an acknowledgment of those who had lost their lives. The white cross, like the accident black spot sign, is immediately recognisable. However, unlike the spot the cross is imbued with real meaning. No mere warning signs these but an invitation to share in someone else’s grief.

Such was the success of the crosses that one local man proposed a standard set of luminous plastic crosses be manufactured and used throughout the country for wouldn’t the standardisation of form, colour and material grant the signs the imprimatur of real authority? On the other hand, perhaps the value of official endorsement needs to be reassessed. Surely the impact of the wooden crosses derived in part at least from the fact that having been individually constructed from off-cuts of timber they were clearly unauthorised. Pitiful testaments to personal tragedy, the crosses spoke in tones of quiet desperation. Perhaps motorists were also persuaded by the fact that local residents who had witnessed terrible tragedy were concerned enough to adopt such a desperate measure. Perhaps also the conventional view that the clearer the message, or at least the more explicit the imagery, the more effective the communication, needs to be reconsidered. In the case of the crosses motorists had evidently misunderstood the purposes of the cross and had constructed their own meaning. Designers might consider the motorist as more than simply a passive viewer – advertisers do. Used to being provided with unambiguous warning signs, motorists might respond better if they were invited to engage with the imagery, to construct meaning from it.

What if local authority officials were to recognise local communities as having special insights into local conditions? Warning signs, designed in consultation with the community, would derive their authority from the community. Just as no two dangerous stretches of road are the same, different communities might be expected to adopt different approaches to similar problems. The variety of solutions adopted throughout the country would ensure that none would become overly familiar to the visiting motorist who is least likely to be aware of just how dangerous a particular stretch of road is.

Postscript

More than eleven years after the protest campaign began most of the road has been up-graded, and while accidents still occur there have been no fatalities in recent years. Undoubtedly improvements made to the road’s surface, the provision of hard shoulders, the erection of warning signs and all the publicity generated by the protest campaign have combined to make the what remains of the dangerous stretch a little safer. However, local people remain convinced that their crosses saved lives.

Ironically there are now new visual distractions on that once infamous road between Aughrim and Galway city. Drivers are now confronted by a plethora of unauthorised signs and advertisements. Among them are three house-for-sale signs in the middle of what is left of the notorious stretch.


Paul Nash, Lecturer in Design, Department of Humanities, Athlone Institute of Technology

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