STOP MEANS STOP: Diluting the Meaning of a Universal Symbol

stop_means_stopI recently heard a report on National Public Radio about a town outside of Chicago that has created a new road sign designed to be used in conjunction with the universally recognized stop sign.

Officials from Park Ridge, a Chicago suburb, contend that the universally recognized standard stop sign is no longer effective and only serves as an invitation to slow down. The new sign, also a red octagon, reads “STOP MEANS STOP” and is installed just below the existing stop sign.

As a design educator I discuss with my students the responsibility of a designer to ensure a design effectively communicates its targeted message to its audience. We do as much as we possibly can to ensure that the audience or user (in this case driver) knows what to do and how to do it. For this to happen we must first recognize that people are not the same and that an individual comes to a situation with their own knowledge and experience set. To prevent errors, mistakes, and miscommunication it’s the job of the designer to ensure the most effective information design for the maximum numbers of intended users.


Given that, you might think that I would support the new Stop Means Stop sign but I don’t. The supplementary stop sign in Park Ridge sets a dangerous precedent and will ultimately dilute the meaning and efficacy of the stop sign. A stop sign means stop. It’s simple, it’s clear, it’s instantly recognizable and the color and shape is employed around the world. Put simply, less is more.

By installing a secondary sign in specific locations the meaning of this very simple and clear sign is degraded. The town of Park Ridge is essentially saying “here we really mean it but in places with just one sign we don’t really mean it. As a design strategist I think it’s crucial to evaluate the use, context, and implementation of any design in order to ensure it’s doing what it was created to do. With road signs two things should be effectively communicated; 1) Convey the information on the sign 2) Explain the type/category of sign.

There are eight basic road sign types as defined by the Vienna Convention on Road Signs & Signals. This intentional treaty created a simple, organized and very specific system to ensure that road signs are consistent and easily understood. If you ever wondered why stop signs are always red octagons and why highway exit signs are always green you can thank the Vienna Treaty.

The problem in Park Ridge is not an issue of conveying the right information it’s an issue of compliance and enforcement. What needs to be communicated is that not stopping will not be tolerated and drivers won’t get away with it. Adding another sign may temporarily draw attention to the sign but in time, if the real problem is not addressed, drivers will most likely ignore the second sign as well as the first one.

So is there a solution? You bet. I would suggest that the folks in Park Ridge focus their energies on a solution that addresses the actual problem- enforcement rather than compounding it with over-communication. And if Park Ridge is like many communities and doesn’t have the resources to put traffic cops or patrol cars at every problem intersection, than Perhaps the same community members who have called to complain about drivers not obeying the stop signs could be trained and empowered as community traffic patrollers in a program like Citizens on Patrol with the power to issue citations. This would address the actual problem, involve the community, generate revenue, and likely discourage further violations.

3 thoughts on “STOP MEANS STOP: Diluting the Meaning of a Universal Symbol

  1. You make a valid point.

    We are having a problem with a STOP sign at our intersection http://www.alexandre.polozoff.com/bloomington/grove and so far even adding alerting flags to the signs has not done much good. It seems compliance is voluntary these days.

    Enforcement, on the other hand is very expensive. Cities outside Chicago and collar counties can not use intersection cameras. Therefore, the only solution is a larger police force which costs more money. Until we get legislation put through to get the rights for other cities in Illinois to use speed and intersection cameras we are helpless.

    I’m not sure about CoP as I have not heard of that organization before. Plus it would require volunteers which most people have enough things to do around the house than patrolling the streets. And most of the violations/accidents at our intersection happen on work days during business hours (8a-5p) so everyone will be at work anyhow. I filmed my video on my days off or weekends.

  2. I’m not familliar with intersection cameras for stop signs. I’ve actually only ever heard of them used at traffic lights. I’m not sure the technology is advance or stable enough at this point where we could rely on it for detecting a complete stop and then motion again and other objecgs might interefere.

    With the traffic light cameras I believe there’s a sensor that detects if a vehicle or object is in the intersection and the sensor is only activated when the traffic signal is in an active (red) state.

    And just as technology is being used to catch traffic light runners, drivers who believe that the traffic cameras are nothing more than entrapment have a whole assortment of anti-camera tricks up their sleeves. One such trick is a clear srapy called Photo Blocker which, when sprayed over a licence plate, allegedly creates a reflection making it unreadable to the camera. Tests by various local TV stations around the country seem to disprove it’s effecctiveness. While covering license plates is illegal in most states the police deartment in Baltimore said it would be nearly impossible to detect if someone was using the spray.

  3. Just a thought. Here in Mexico, it is a violation to leave a stop sign without sitting still for two seconds. Most people are unaware of the law, even that have driven for years, until a cop stops them demanding a pay-off. So, make it a mandatory two second stop.

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