Joan Bakewell: Some unfortunate signs of our times

It's a wonder some of us don't just put on the brakes at a busy junction, and let out a primal motorist's scream
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The Independent Online

I keep referring to "him" because the likelihood that it's a man is greater than the possibility it's a woman. So much can be inferred from what a psychiatrist at King's College London has told the RAC Foundation, that men are twice as likely to be distracted by information overload as women. And information overload is what it's all about.

As a motorist, I have suffered from it for years, complained about it often, only to wake and find as prestigious an organisation as the RAC agreeing with me and calling the attention of road authorities to the dangers. The risks are obvious: more crashes, damage to signage, injury to people, tempers stretched, road rage brewing and motoring misery all round.

The problem is the abundance of street furniture - directions, street names, speed limits, road closures, indications for theme parks and heritage sites, ways to find the railway station, the museum, the superstore, the car park. All this information is scattered on an array of different hoardings, and signposts, each with logos in various colours, and different type faces. Add in the traffic news on the car radio, plus the increasingly common use of satellite navigation systems, and it's a wonder some of us don't just put on the brakes at a busy junction, open the windows and let out a primal motorist's scream.

The hard fact is, according to the RAC Foundation's motoring psychologist, people can only think of and take in "five, plus or minus two" messages or points of information at any one time. Women who have regularly to get the family off to school or cook a Sunday lunch with all the trimmings, know this well enough. It's the multi-tasking we are so much better at than men.

But on the road, given the five signs taken note of, that extra one, the one we overlook, could be the one that spells disaster. The RAC is currently urging road authorities to do something about it. I would go further. My concerns extend beyond mere motoring matters into the whole look and aesthetic of our street experience.

In our towns and cities today, it is almost irredeemably ghastly. It wasn't always so. We can't blame urban development itself. Consider the gracious look of 18th-century Bath, the elegant streets of Edinburgh's New Town, the pleasing architectural mix of towns like Warwick and Ludlow.

They have a continuing attraction in the face of creeping invasion by the road vandals, the numerous different agencies who press their own interests and disfigure our streets with their assertive traffic control, confusing directions, and all the bric-a- brac attendant on modern living. There are even proposals pending to allow advertising hoardings along motorways.

How can we, the citizens of what was and could remain a beautiful country, allow such deterioration to come about. It didn't happen overnight. Today's sorry state of affairs arrived by stealth, the gradual encroachment of traffic lights, bollards and guard rails, each of which was thought to be beneficial to road safety at the time.

Now, given this latest warning from the RAC that clutter causes collisions, we can start, in the interests of that same road safety, to insist the authorities - all of them acting together - do something to streamline our urban landscape to give us pleasure, incline us to walk rather than drive, and slow down the pace of life to a more tolerable level.

Indeed a start of sorts has already been made. In October 2004, championed by their Commissioner, Bill Bryson, English Heritage launched a "Save our Streets" campaign. It encouraged individuals to start their own street audits and send their findings to the councils. It challenged councils to join in and start putting together streetscape manuals. Some 100 out of 400 have responded so far, and the first fruits of their labours can be expected any time. Already things are looking less messy in Shrewsbury which has groomed its High Street, along with London's Kensington Church Street. And Nottingham even appointed a clutter-buster to go round dismantling the city's thousands of "at any time" parking signs, made redundant by yellow lines.

So far so good. Slowly we have a chance to retreat from the chaotic forest of street furniture that's sprouted over the years. Yet I'm not so sure. These improvements are inspired by aesthetic values, which don't rank high in this country's culture.

Now, however, we have evidence from the RAC which comes under the health and safety mantra, one that currently appeals far more to the public and those who govern our lives. In the present headlong dash to ban anything that offers the slightest whiff of danger, can we perhaps hope to ban ugliness by allying it with road risk. Most of all, I'd like to banish those whimsical signs that disfigure the prettiest villages: "Little Muddlecombe welcomes Safe Drivers". Take the sign down, and it might!