Friday, October 21, 2011

Signs of the times

I've started writing for a local newspaper, The Washington County Observer. Here's a recent column:

It's about 5 in the morning and I can't sleep.

So online I start reading the Standard Highway Signs and Markings (SHSM) Book -- Interim Releases for New and Revised Signs of the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices of the
Federal Highway Administration of the U. S. Department of Trnsportation.

That title alone should be enough to send me back to bed.

But there's somewhat interesting stuff here, at least to me, an individual who collects useless information (and who put it to good use by becoming a college professor). For highway engineers there are valuable instuctions that most of us don't think about. The online book has PDF files containing samples of what highway signs should look like and the entire effort is to make signs uniform in color, shape, reflectivity, and size. That way a driver anywhere in the country can readily understand road characteristics and hazards.

Of course. Makes sense.

But there is one area in which the Department of Transportation completely lost it and came up with sign regulations that were absurd, expensive, and, quite frankly, none of their business.

It was in the area of what we commonly call "street signs," the signs that tell us the names of streets. And the federal government decided that by 2018 municipalities, townships, and counties needed to have street signs that were uniform in size, color, type, style, and reflectivity. That meant taking down their current street signs and replacing them with the "new and improved" ones.

Faced with the $100 cost for each sign, local governments, the ones who have to pay the bills (with our tax money), let out such a howl that in August Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood backed off and said "common sense" (words rarely heard among big-government types) dictated that the street sign replacement requirement be scrapped.

There is a lesson here, something the Founding Fathers incorporated into the Constitution: some things are better left to the states; other things are naturally the sphere of the federal government.

Aristotle spelled it out in detail: basic human needs, he said, should be met by the most basic human unit, the family. What the family can't handle should be done by the local community, what the local community can't handle should be done by the next biggest entity, in our case the county, then on up the scale to the state and federal governments.

So the family decides its basic needs on health care, retirement, educating children, etc. At the other end of the scale, the federal government deals with things like defense. And local governments decided mundane things about potholes and sewage systems.

As as a result, families shouldn't preside over traffic court, counties shouldn't buy aircraft carriers, and the federal government shouldn't regulate street signs.

Despite Secretary LaHood's criticism of the street sign regulations, somehow I think they'll be back. It is, after all, about federal incursion into just about everything.

That, sad to say, is a sign of the times.

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