The Art of Overthinking: Traffic Signs

Yesterday, I was driving along a road when my check engine light suddenly came on, and my car began to make an unusual noise. There was construction on the shoulder, and cones had been placed every hundred or so feet between it and the road. A sign next to one of the cones read “Park Disabled Vehicles Behind Cones.” Though this instruction seemed simple enough to follow, upon further consideration, it proved to be anything but.

The first issue was the lack of a subject. Without a subject, it was unclear exactly who the instruction was intended for. If it included a possessive adjective, e.g., “Park Your Disabled Vehicles Behind Cones,” both this issue, and the third issue, would have been avoided.

The second issue was the word ‘disabled.’ Lacking a definition of vehicular disability, I concluded that a vehicle qualified as disabled if its otherwise normal functioning was impaired. But this definition was vague, and implied a broad spectrum of vehicular disability, ranging from slightly to completely disabled. Since it was unclear exactly how disabled a vehicle had to be to warrant being parked behind the cones, I concluded that all slightly to almost-completely disabled vehicles consequently qualified, but completely disabled vehicles did not, since a completely disabled vehicle may be immovable, and an instruction to move an immovable object is self-refuting. But what if a vehicle, such as mine, was not yet disabled, but seemed that it was instead soon-to-be? Since a soon-to-be-disabled vehicle could quickly become slightly-to-almost-completely-disabled if the impairment is not addressed, I concluded that soon-to-be-disabled vehicles were also implied.

The third issue was the word ‘vehicles.’ Since it would be unlikely that anyone would be driving more than one disabled vehicle at a time, the plural form of the word ‘vehicle’ seemed incorrect, that is unless the possessive adjective ‘your’ was implied, and the instruction referred to all drivers as a collective. So, I concluded that ‘your’ was implied.

The fourth issue was the word ‘cones.’ Since the plural form of the word ‘cone’ was used, the sign instructed drivers to park behind:

A) More than one cone, but not all of the cones.

B) All of the cones.

Option A seemed improbable since the possible quantities of cones that met this criteria would range fromas few astwo cones to as many as all of the cones minus one, making it nearly impossible to determine exactly how many cones one was supposed to park behind.

Option B seemed equally improbable because, to satisfy this instruction, one would have to park their vehicle temporarily behind every single cone, something that would be difficult even with a normally functioning vehicle. Seeing as neither option seemed rational, I concluded that the instruction to park behind one of the cones was implied.

Therefore, the expanded version of the instruction was as follows:

“Park (Your) (Slightly-To-Almost-Completely-or-Soon-To-Be) Disabled Vehicles Behind (One of the) Cones.”

Though the expanded instruction seemed simple enough to follow, one final issue, the fifth issue, remained: the word ‘behind.’

To park behind a cone, one would first have to identify the front of it. Unfortunately, there is nothing about a cone that indicates either a front or a back. One could have taken a pragmatic stance and concluded that the front-back orientation of the cones was determined by the direction of traffic. If that were the case, the front of the cone would be:

A) Facing the direction of traffic.

B) Facing opposite the direction of traffic.

C) Perpendicular to the direction of traffic.

Option A proved illogical because once the first cone was passed, each subsequent space in which one could have parked would technically have been both behind one cone and in front of another simultaneously. However, this was not what was instructed, nor was it even implied in the expanded version of the instruction.

Option B made sense intuitively since, as human beings, we tend to describe things in our environment in terms of their spatial relation to us. But this option proved illogical as well for several reasons. If one were to park their vehicle behind the cone, they would have to first pass the cone, and park in the space between it and the subsequent cone, which results in the same issue as Option A, only reversed. The only cone that one could hypothetically park behind without simultaneously parking in front of another cone is the absolute last cone, but that presupposes that each slightly-to-almost-completely-or-soon-to-be-disabled vehicle could make it to that exact spot without risking further impairment, and that that said spot could accommodate all the slightly-to-almost-completely-or-soon-to-be-disabled vehicles on the road while construction was ongoing.

Option C proved illogical too, as it would mean that what qualified as behind the cone was either:

1) The shoulder.

2) The road.

Since instructing drivers to park their disabled vehicles in the same place they typically do seemed unnecessary, and instructing them to park their disabled vehicles on the road seemed both dangerous and counterproductive, neither Option C1 nor C2 proved reasonable.

It appeared that rationality had taken me as far as it could go.

So, it was these points that I raised when a rather perplexed police officer arrived and asked why I had parked my own not-yet-but-potentially-soon-to-be-disabled vehicle in the middle of the road until receiving further instruction. ❏

J.E. Mayers is a resident of Jersey City, NJ, where he is currently putting his philosophy degree to good use as a bartender. 

Photo by Ugur Peker

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One Response

  1. Philosophically speaking, if you are driving your Skoda and your Czech engine light comes on, isn’t that just reaffirmation?

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