TM&Th blog
Jean-luc Doumont
Warning: watch for warning signs ahead

Santiago de Chile's Metro gets a little more crowded every year,
not just with the many travelers converging on it as a result of
the Transantiago grand plan, but also with warning messages.
Warnings about escalators, for example, are common worldwide,
but I had never seen any as huge (or as little visual) as the ones
in Metro de Santiago. Ditto for the warning about closing doors,
a process moreover signaled by a flashing orange light, a beep,
and a voice recording that goes “se inicia el cierre de puertas”
(meaning literally “the closing of the doors is being initiated”)—
and additional warning signs about the doors on the car itself.
The result is visually suffocating and raises several questions.
Are the signs necessary? If so, are they reaching their purpose?

Ojo con la escalera mecánica

Cuidado con el cierre de puertas

Cuidado con el cierre de puertas

Why do we need warning signs? To prevent accidents, of course:
safety first! “If they are putting all those warnings in the Metro,”
a friend commented to me , “it must be because they have had
accidents already.” Avoiding further accidents is a noble purpose
all right, but are the warning signs doing the job? Are the users
of the Metro changing their behavior as a result of the warnings?
Are they reading a sign the first time they see it? Are they even
noticing the sign every time they pass in front of it after that—
or is it part of the scenery? “Well, that's why they make the signs
so large, so people notice them.” Really? What does that change?
Perhaps more people see bigger signs when these first appear,
but are they more likely to read and heed the advice? I doubt it,
all the more so when so many signs compete for their attention.
And the auditive channel is of course hardly better: after hearing
“se inicia el cierre de puertas” at every station on a single trip,
one stops taking notice of it too (except perhaps as an example
of a needlessly complicated sentence to discuss on one's blog).

Sube con calma

Given that most anything in our environment can be dangerous
if used carelessly, where do we draw the line about displaying
a warning for users? Metro de Santiago even puts warning signs
about approaching staircases up or down—really big ones, too.
Do they assume their travelers grew up in a world without stairs?
Are staircases not one of those “dangers” you learn to negotiate
responsibly from your parents or simply figure out by yourself?
Or should cities warn pedestrians about every single street item
they could hit or trip over (curbs, mailboxes, front porches, etc.)?
Let's definitely make hidden obstacles more visible, for example
by marking the edge of the first and last stairs in bright yellow,
but let's not attempt to solve the issue with more text warnings
that, if anything, take the attention away from the stairs. (Once,
at a client's, I was so intrigued by a sign warning me about stairs
I missed the first step and almost fell down the whole staircase.
I'd say they should put a warning sign about that warning sign. ;-)

Besides possibly oppressing passerby visually, as in the Metro,
too many warnings dilute the information, failing to emphasize
major dangers. When a user's guide for a battery-operated toy
starts with a full page of warnings about using batteries safely
(such as not attempting to recharge nonrechargeable batteries),
even cautious parents might skip the whole “Warnings” section
and, in the process, miss more important, toy-specific dangers.

Too often, I feel the warnings are not there to protect the users
from physical harm but to protect the companies from litigation.
Possibly, these companies even feel good about “having done
their job” as far as safety is concerned, just like many professors
feel they have done their job when they covered all the material,
whether or not their students have actually assimilated any of it.
As an extreme example, the cable car to the solar observatory
at the Pic du Midi urges you to respect the safety instructions,
which are posted in small print on a wall you are not allowed
to approach closer than about two meters as you wait in line.
Or is this why they recommend that you bring your binoculars? ;-)

Cable car to the Pic du Midi

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Mon 27 Sep 2010   The prank “door safety instructions” below by students
of the Ecole Normale Supérieure Paris are fully in line with my comments
on unnecessary warnings. Thanks to Brice Dubost for sending them to me
(PDF version at www.eleves.ens.fr/home/amarilli/inutile/doorsafety.pdf).
If you read French or Spanish, you can notice on these safety instructions
the limitations of what is presumably machine translation. As an example,
Draw the door toward you gets translated as Dessinez la porte vers vous
and Dibuja la puerta hacia usted (literally, Make a drawing of the door…).

ENS warning joke