Fire lane markings backwards, or do I have the world's most innocuous case of dyslexia?
October 26, 2010 8:11 PM   Subscribe

In NYC (and possibly other places), why are the words "Fire Lane" painted "backwards" on the street?

Random example of what I'm talking about. Here's another. When I look at this painted on the street, I read, "Lane Fire."

I understand that the idea is that since you're driving towards it, first you come upon the word "fire," and then you come upon the word "lane," hence, "fire lane." However, to my eye, the two words have always seemed too close together to read that way; I process the words together as one entity, rather than separately, so the phrase strikes me as "Lane Fire." Then it takes a second for my brain to register, "Oh, of course that's Fire Lane, not the other way around."

This might seem like a frivolous question, and it is mainly motivated by idle curiosity, but in a certain way it strikes me as important, too. The whole point of having the "Fire Lane" markings is to draw your attention to the necessity of keeping the lane clear, e.g. in case of an emergency, so it should be designed in a way that minimizes mental processing time and confusion, right?

I guess what I'm wondering, then, is twofold:

1) Is this just me? At first glance, do you read "Fire Lane" or "Lane Fire?"
2) Is there any official reason for why they do it this way? Unofficial reason? Historical? Based on some scientific study?

I'm just curious how it ended up this way, when it seems just as reasonable to have the two words in legible order, considering they're only painted a couple of feet apart on the street.
posted by dixiecupdrinking to Law & Government (26 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
The logic (I think) is that you're supposed to read it as you're driving toward it. But most people are capable of reading the whole thing in one chunk. It's not just fire lanes in NYC, either. Just one example.
posted by katillathehun at 8:14 PM on October 26, 2010

And another example.
posted by katillathehun at 8:15 PM on October 26, 2010

It's so that the first word you come across is the first word of the phrase. On average the closer word becomes more legible as you approach, so you'd read "fire" before "lane" and your brain pieces it together. Versus reading "lane" before you're able to make out "fire", thereby distracting your thoughts and vision with figuring it out instead of paying attention to the road.
posted by CancerMan at 8:19 PM on October 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

Ha! Well, at least that cartoon confirms I'm not the only one who thinks this is odd.
posted by dixiecupdrinking at 8:19 PM on October 26, 2010

I feel exactly the same and have always wondered the same thing.

I also have issues with logo designs that put two halves of a slogan on top and bottom lines surrounding a product name in a larger font. I tend to read "It's The COKE Real Thing" instead of "It's The Real Thing" as a slogan surrounding the word Coke.
posted by Sara C. at 8:20 PM on October 26, 2010 [6 favorites]

I think the order I read it depends on both the spacing between them and my speed.

One motivation for putting FIRE first could be that it makes it larger and more imposing, more demanding of your attention. FIRE is after all the most important of the two words.

Another thing is that if your driving as you should -- i.e. looking ahead and registering everything as soon as possible -- then you will be able to read FIRE before LANE.

The order you read it when you're just looking at a static picture on your screen is moot.
posted by spr at 8:25 PM on October 26, 2010

I've always been annoyed by this, too, along with the logo designs Sara C. mentioned.

xkcd had a strip about this, too.
posted by wayland at 8:35 PM on October 26, 2010

On an open road or in a photograph, it looks wrong, I agree. If there's traffic, the wrods are uncovered in front of you in the correct order and it's far easier to comprehend...
posted by benzo8 at 8:39 PM on October 26, 2010

There's a store with a one-way driveway that says "Enter Do Not". I always assumed Yoda was the street painter.
posted by dogmom at 8:49 PM on October 26, 2010 [3 favorites]

In the UK, markings like this are in the "correct" order, so I found it just as weird as you when I moved here. I assumed that all USians would think it normal, but its interesting that it seems odd to some of you guys too. The one that always makes me do a double take is Xing Ped.
posted by Joh at 8:55 PM on October 26, 2010

Maybe most people don't read quite as easily as the average mefite.
posted by madcaptenor at 8:56 PM on October 26, 2010

Interestingly enough, madcaptenor, I had a lot more trouble with this sort of thing when I was little, before I had great reading skills. I also balked at Ped Xing (forwards or backwards!) and a common sign where I grew up, Bridge May Ice In Cold Weather*. Something about the fact that May and Ice work as verbs in that sentence, but are more commonly used as nouns.

All of this - and more that are totally irrelevant to this post - conspired to make me feel sure that there was some sort of secret grownup code I didn't have access to. Or maybe that all adults were totally fucking with me.

*Yes, winter weather is so rare in Louisiana that the government has to warn people that the roads might freeze.
posted by Sara C. at 9:02 PM on October 26, 2010

@ Sara C. Up north, it's "Bridge Freezes Before Road Surface"
Let's face it, bridges is trouble.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 9:12 PM on October 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

Hah! My husband took that first photo and that's his blog post! Anyway, yeah, it's supposed to be because you'll read Fire before Lane as you're driving toward it, but most people read top-to-bottom, so it looks weird.
posted by bedhead at 9:16 PM on October 26, 2010

As benzo8 suggests, other vehicles may be covering up the words beyond the first one you see. It's just a convention. It's probably been tested at some point and found that drivers get to read it in the correct order more often 57% of the time or something like that, and when you scale that across the entire country, you save 3 lives and 130 injuries each year or something like that. That's the way highway engineering works.

Compare the US DOT's multi-year effort to get local authorities to change street name signs from the old "MAIN ST." in various gothic letterforms to "Main St." in Clearview, a typeface chosen less for its aesthetics than for its readability at speed and at distance, especially for those with diminished sight.
posted by dhartung at 9:44 PM on October 26, 2010 [2 favorites]

so it should be designed in a way that minimizes mental processing time and confusion, right?

Here in California, all words on the road are painted with the first word closer to you, and they show up very frequently: KEEP CLEAR, BUS ONLY, PED XING, SCHOOL XING, STOP AHEAD, SIGNAL AHEAD, etc.

The "backwards" phrases are common enough that when I see words painted on the road in "normal" order I usually read them wrong at first.
posted by clorox at 9:58 PM on October 26, 2010

I always imagined it was also meant to be helpful in slow or stopped traffic. You could presumably read the phrase as the vehicle in front of yours moved ahead while you were waiting to proceed.
posted by gummie at 10:55 PM on October 26, 2010

I also have issues with logo designs that put two halves of a slogan on top and bottom lines surrounding a product name in a larger font.

yea, the ones that drive me crazy are the automatic caution doors
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 2:27 AM on October 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

In answer to your first question, no it's not just you. This has always baffled me when I'm in the States. Not just "Lane Fire" but "XING SCHOOL", which always makes me think of kids approaching their school and thinking "Oh God, X-ing school again!"

To my eye the words are far too close together to justify painting them in reverse order like this. It's just confusing. We don't do it that way in the UK.
posted by Decani at 3:54 AM on October 27, 2010

Not everyone has perfect eyesight. The first word will be visible first.
posted by gjc at 5:30 AM on October 27, 2010

I have terrible eyesight and these things bothered me even when I didn't have glasses (admittedly, these days without the glasses I probably couldn't read the street markings unless I was standing on them.)

I am very confident this is a "in tests of drunk, illiterate-until-age-30 volunteers, 16% correctly recited the text of all three warnings when asked after completing an obstacle course featuring murderous clowns, but, when putting the text backwards, this improved to 19%, implying a savings of $85,500 over a calendar year due to reduced homicidal clown-vehicle collisions" thing.

Highway engineering is all about tiny margins and saving the lives of evil circus employees.
posted by SMPA at 7:09 AM on October 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

2) Is there any official reason for why they do it this way?

Not really a "why", but it is standardized, so your local municipality is just following that. The standard for road design is the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD), and this part is covered in Part 3 (PDF), page 389:
If a pavement marking word message consists of more than one line of information, it should read in the direction of travel. The first word of the message should be nearest to the road user.
posted by smackfu at 7:47 AM on October 27, 2010

N-thing that it looks weird.

I also have trouble with the fact that sometimes the big "important" word is put in the middle. E.g. most automatic doors have a "caution" sign on them, with "caution" being writ large and put in between the other words.

To my eye, this reads funny: "automatic caution door".
posted by kestrel251 at 7:56 AM on October 27, 2010

Smackfu – awesome, I figured this was a standard that had to be codified somewhere.

There's gotta be studies that show this is statistically a better way to do it, right? As dhartung noted, I would imagine highway engineers tend to follow the stats slavishly on these things. But maybe I'm asking too much.

On the topic of other oddly-ordered signs, growing up in Massachusetts I used to see these (beginning at the fourth row down) "Go Children Slow" signs everywhere and could NEVER understand what they were supposed to mean. (I was like ten years old and not driving cars, fortunately.) Some of those signs pictured don't even use different font sizes or styles, so there's no clue at all you're supposed to read "Children" and "Go Slow" separately.
posted by dixiecupdrinking at 8:33 AM on October 27, 2010

On foot., I've noticed this, but it seems to work on a car. Though it seems like the words are more widely spaced in Texas.

Also, the Texas A&M logo always bugged me. Your logo says, ATM! This is why there are Aggie jokes!
posted by cmoj at 10:14 AM on October 27, 2010

In case it's of interest, they do the same thing here in Italy, and it bugs the heck out of me, too. Perhaps we're just driving too fast, and people driving at a legit speed will read the individual lines of text in the intended order?
posted by aqsakal at 12:56 PM on October 27, 2010

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