Editorial: Getting tricky with signage

The bogus speed limit sign put up on the Colac Bay foreshore is less clever than clever dick.

Southern tricksters have been making merry by counterfeiting officialdom's signs for some years now and sometimes it's been hard to wipe the grin off our face before encouraging caution.

But we're going to scowl at this one. The pranksters, presumably local, who changed a 70kmh speed limit sign on the edge of Colac Bay to 30kmh may well have thought they were doing exactly that - encouraging caution - while making a point to enhance their call for a reduced speed through their town.

What they were really fostering, though, is a bit of thoroughly unhelpful suspicion in the minds of motorists the next time they come across a legitimate sign that sends them an unexpected message.

After all, signs do change. Even Colac Bay already has a reduced speed, albeit just to 50kmh, over the holiday period before reverting to 70kmh at the end of January.

Other places, like Woodlands and Limehills, are campaigning for lower limits. What if they get approval, and the lower signs are duly posted, only to be met by suspicion from drivers aware of the Colac stunt?

It's arguable that the benefit of slowing down the main volume of traffic might trump the occasional risk of having a bona fide sign ignored, but the bottom line here is that it's not being finickity to regard traffic safety signs as something the public should be able to rely on.

The same thought occurred, if only occasionally, during the rather more celebrated incidents of well-faked Department of Conservation information panels being placed around Fiordland tramping spots in recent years. Plausibly designed and nicely worded to catch the departmental tone they were, we grant you, satirical and sometimes quite witty.

But, again, the real DOC signs sometimes had a public safety component. We wouldn't want people to smile at, then disregard, the real signs warning against drinking Fiordland water for risk of explosive diarrhoea, after having encountered the fake one asking people not to defecate in our National Parks as toilets in conservation areas were strictly for urination only. [That sign then directed readers to DOC visitor centres for heavy-duty tramping nappies.]

Another fake sign advertising an "effluent station" pointed people up a bluff steep enough to carry a gratuitous risk of injury for anyone trusting enough to have clambered up there - and remember that many tourist trampers have limited English and knowledge of New Zealand customs.

Later this year election billboards will blossom hither and yon. Then some will mutate overnight. The tradition, if you want to call it that, of mucking around with them can encompass witless vandalism or something more clever.

But, in any case, the debate about what separates vandalism from public expression in this context, and even whether the original billboard should be defended as part of an honourable tradition of allowing simple bottom-line communication from parties to voters, or assailed as a provocative insult to our collective intelligence fully deserving riposte, is less to the point than the reality that the rotten things are someone else's property, expensive enough to manufacture, and were generally erected by an honest volunteer. Posting signs in reply nearby is a classier way to go.

The Southland Times