I Have Defaulted...And I Can't Get Up

Traffic signage, in case you hadn't noticed, tends toward the functional: Stop. Merge. Yield. The strictures of rush-hour attention spans, not to mention space, preclude anything approaching flamboyance. Were poetry their medium, the nation's traffic sign specialists would no doubt produce haiku of the driest variety.

How, then, to explain the curious crop of message boards that have popped up on Dade's most frequently used byways, the ones that occasionally proclaim, in yellow fluorescence, "I HAVE DEFAULTED"? The tone, so personal as to approach the confessional. The syntax, a blunt, self-referential jab. The word choice -- defaulted -- an apparent off-ramp into the haunting realm of financial instability. Who, we are left to ponder, or what, has defaulted? The sign? The sign owner? The very thoroughfare along which our lives are routed?

"`I have defaulted' just means something's wrong. A microchip defaults or the alternator breaks. It's the sign's way of telling us, `Fix me!'" explains Robert Elsey, manager of the Miami branch of Bob's Barricades, which provides the Department of Transportation with the newfangled signs. "Anytime we get a report on one of those, we go out and repair the sign. Period."

If Elsey sounds a bit flustered about the topic -- and plainly he does -- the reason is obvious. Elsey is the man responsible for programming the computer-controlled marquees -- "variable message boards" in signage parlance -- and he has not taken kindly to recent suggestions that his "default" message is confusing. In fact, he confides, it is the distress signal's very ambiguity that marks its brilliance.

"Let's face it, that message sticks out like a sore thumb," observes Elsey, whose company is responsible for seven of the dozen variable-message boards scattered around Dade's perpetually under-construction roads (and the only ones that sport the distinctive hapless admission). "When people see it, whether an inspector or a contractor or John Q. Public, someone calls in and -- bomb -- we hear about it. A few weeks ago one of the morning disc jockeys was complaining on his show about a default sign. The first thing I did when I got into the office was get the thing repaired."

The trailer-size message boards, mobile yellow-on-black signs fueled by diesel, rented by DOT for $90 per day, and currently in view along I-95 and eastbound 836, are considered the cutting edge of traffic signage, Elsey notes. Developed during the early Eighties to replace the clunky, inflexible metal warnings of highways past, they allow technicians to change a message with the tap of a keyboard, by plugging a special computer into the sign. Elsey says the contraptions -- which cost an estimated $23,000 apiece -- "default" only occasionally. "Sometimes it's twice a week," he reports. "Sometimes twice a month. But they don't stay down for long."

"You have to remember," Elsey adds, "you've got inspectors out there who drive up and down these roads constantly. After a while they don't notice anything. But this `default' thing hits them. It's like a stab in the brain. When we put the message in two years ago, we had no idea it would cause such a stir, but the fact is they're out there to cause a stir."

Unfortunately, not everyone in the signage field has grasped the semiotic nuances of Elsey's "default" strategy. "We do have a few engineers that have been wondering about that sign," admits Ali Khalilahmadi, a DOT traffic engineer. "How come they didn't come up with a different message, like some kind of phone number? How about `I'm broken, please call...'? I mean, that `default' thing is really weird. We laughed a lot about it here at first. But it really is confusing."

Elsey, who has spent fourteen years at Bob's Barricades, greets such suggestions with the imperturbable demeanor of a kindergarten teacher putting down pupils for an afternoon nap. "We're working with a limited space," he points out. "We don't have room to tie it up with a number."

A simple "Help" message? "Too alarming," Elsey insists. "To me that would be a spooky message. Drivers are going to start looking around for what's going on. You don't want to distract the driver and have them get into an accident. You have to find a happy medium, and `I have defaulted' seemed to be a happy medium."

In fact, according to insiders, the variable message boards are part of a DOT master plan to control traffic flow using closed-circuit television monitors. "Using the TV monitors and these message boards, we'll be able to warn drivers miles in advance if there's a delay up ahead," says DOT spokeswoman Ingrid Sigarreta.

As of press time, however, Sigarreta did not know what message the television monitors would flash when they were broken.


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