Updated: Jan 6
Whenever I get in my Honda a dashboard light goes on before I even crank the motor.
“The driver,” it proclaims, “is responsible for the safe operation of this vehicle.” The dictum
continues, but I can never read the rest because it always disappears when the engine starts. I’m left in suspense, wondering: what corporate crankypuss found it necessary to say that I’m responsible for driving my own car? Who else?
Perhaps a liability lawyer can be forgiven for overprotecting his corporate client, but a
profusion of needless, heedless signs so permeates the landscape that I am sworn to pulling
them out like so many rotten teeth.
Some signs attempt to impart wisdom. For example, ye proprietors of the interstate
highway system sponsor an overhead digital that advises: ”An alert driver can avoid a crash.”
My advice: stop competing with Chinese fortune cookies.
Gated communities offer a smorgasbord of silly signs. Go to our club pool and one is
stunned by a wailing wall of 16 rules. In addition to the old bromide that “parents are
responsible for their own children,” used diapers “are not to be discarded in deck area” and
“children in diapers must use waterproof diapers.”
But children of all ages would probably stay home anyway and watch TV because
“running, ball playing, skates, skateboarding, animals, glass containers, rafts, pushing, shoving, diving, dunking and electric cars (Teslas, too?) are prohibited in the pool area.”
A nudist colony? No, just a community pool.
Perhaps you’d rather settle gently into the jacuzzi, but not so fast, Bub. PREGNANT
WOMEN, PEOPLE WITH HEALTH PROBLEMS AND PEOPLE USING ALCOHOL, NARCOTICES OR OTHER DRUGS SHOULD NOT USE THE SPA WITHOUT CONSULTING A PHYSICIAN.
Pasted on the sliding glass door leading to the social hall where ladies play canasta and
mahjong is this sign: “No bathing suits permitted inside.” One of these days I’m going to waltz
through the threshold in my birthday suit and inform the mortified matrons inside that I was
required to remove my bathing suit.
Head for the beach instead? There you’ll find the motherlode of all warning signs before
you wiggle your toes in the sand. I once clipped out a New Yorker cartoon that shows a mother, father, and two tots with their towels and pails gawking blankly at a beach sign. It says: HAVE A GOOD TIME AND DO WHATEVER THE HELL YOU WANT.
Some signs beg to be re-written. A Hilton Hotel room I stayed in recently displayed a
tent card: “Because conserving water is part of our ‘Go Green’ commitment, we no longer
change sheets and towels each day. If you need special assistance, please dial 0.”
My edit would read: “Because we need to squeeze out more profit, and because we’re
having trouble hiring housekeepers anyway, you must now re-use your dirty sheets and
The most ubiquitous sign in America is the one you see on anything you can hammer a
nail in. It says Post No Bills. Amazing. A sign that warns you not to post a sign.
Okay, I’ll acknowledge that some signs seem necessary: STOP, RR CROSSING, STEEP
CURVE and such. Yet, I never have been able to justify spending tax dollars for signs on
mountain roads that read: DANGER, FALLING ROCKS. If Henny Penny is right and the sky really is falling, what can you do – back up and get rear-ended by the guy coming around the bend behind you?
Yes, some private signs also have merit. BEWARE OF DOG can be useful. Same for TOXIC
Ingenuity also merits praise. To wit: Out in our farm country there’s a hand-scrawled
sign on a pasture gate. It reads: “If you plan to cross my land, you’d better be able to do it in 8
seconds. My bull does it in 9.”
What’s truly sad about all these warnings and liability forms run amok is that most
aren’t worth the paper/cardboard/tin/plastic they’re printed on. How many auto rental forms
have you initialed that absolve the company of every liability short of boobytrapping your car? I’ve rented bikes and kayaks with forms that say no matter what calamity befalls me, it ain’t the owner’s fault.
Problem is, “liability cases are almost always decided by the individual circumstances,”
says John Lawson, a veteran tort lawyer. “An auto renter can swear that he has no fault for
renting you a car with dangerously thin tires, but a jury is free to call it another way.”
The bottom line: we’re all responsible for our own safety. But I do confess, I’d still like to
read the rest of that dashboard lecture on my Honda.