The Lazy Designer

Bad Designer! – Road Construction

I often find it useful to look at how the things I encounter in life (buildings, objects, events, procedures, et cetera) are designed. This helps me understand user flow as well as how engineers and planners prevent misuse. It also gives me the chance to vent about road construction under the guise of constructive criticism :)

I’m going to assume most readers are familiar with road construction and how frustrating it can be to hit a long stretch of it. Slower speeds. Workers along the sides of the roads. Heavy machinery. Rocks spraying up and cracking windshields.

Why Drivers Do Not Take Road Construction Seriously

Between the two trips, I encountered at least a dozen construction sites. Of those only two actually had a ‘end of construction’ sign.

I was a very eager and attentive driver through the first couple construction zones and kept to the speed limit (and watched all the other drivers pass me). But after realizing that most construction zones did not have a sign up to tell me the zone was finished, I started speeding up as soon as I thought that I was past the actual construction part (i.e., no more workers or machines visible).
This seemed like an obvious action for me to take except that in a couple of the zones there were more workers up ahead, without additional signage. The zone had not ended but every driver on the road had resumed normal speed because it seemed like the zone should have ended. And because in past zones there was no sign to tell us the construction had ended, myself and the other drivers made an assumption — that we had to decide for ourselves when construction ended.

Road construction signage needs to be consistent else drivers will make assumptions (just as gamers will make assumptions in a videogame based on what the designer has shown them of the virtual world). If drivers are taught (through inconsistent signage) that it is up to them to decide when the construction zone ends, they will do so.

While end-of-construction signage was probably the most significant frustration I found though there were a couple others. I like the new ‘flashing speed signs’ (they show you your speed and if you are driving over the limit they also flash) and I’ve heard that they help encourage drivers to slow down. But in one construction site this sign was found right at the edge of the zone… that is, you didn’t see it until you were leaving the construction zone! I’m not sure how effective that would be…

Likewise care has to be given about the actual speeds posted. If a driver sees a speed limit that seems really out of wack for the conditions… they will make an assumption that the sign is a mistake and drive at a speed they consider safe. For example, on a stretch of straight road with few machines and workers and all lanes open it seems odd to go all the way down to 50km/h. So few drivers slow down that much.

Rant Over
So how about elsewhere in the world? I’d like to hear that in other countries there’s some enforced consistency in road construction zones (and that it helps reduce deaths and accidents). And if anybody out there has worked road construction, what kinds of training goes into the process? Are there actually rules and procedures behind how signage is posted?

p.s. I was wondering if truckers, through some law hidden to me, are actually allowed to drive at normal speeds in construction zones? Because most of them did…

Former lead designer at BioWare (Dragon Age: Origins, Neverwinter Nights). Creator of Raiders of the Serpent Sea.


  • James Alexander Henley

    Always fun to hear your discourses, Brent, and I couldn’t agree more about consistency.┬á As far as games go, I’m a bit fanatical about the ways in which we communicate with the player.┬á I suspect that a number of my design philosophies may have been shaped more prominently by the time I spent sharing an office with you than I may have originally realized.

  • Brent Knowles

    Great to hear from you James and I’m glad you found my post of interest! I suspect though that my philosophies were shaped just as much by those I shared offices with as vice versa!

    Hope all is going well.

    Take care,


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