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Wednesday November 26, 2014

A sign of the times?

Do road signs like this reinforce negative stereotyping?

There has been mounting pressure in the UK to outlaw the three decade old triangular road sign that depicts an elderly couple, bent double and hobbling with the aid of a walking stick. Dr Ros Altman, a pensions expert, insists that the image reinforces negative stereotypes and could deter companies from considering the over 50 age group for employment. In Spain, debate had focused on a different kind of road sign, that depicting only men.

Some years ago the town of Fuenlabrada, south of Madrid, caused a great deal of polemic when the local council mooted the idea of converting 50 per cent of its road signs to reflect the female gender. Mind you, this is a council that has its very own Municipal Gender Observatory, Observatorio Municipal de Género – with the acronym OMG. Finally it got its way and signs were erected at pedestrian crossings showing a jaunty looking woman wearing a dress. While some approved of the new design others thought it sexist that women were not shown sporting trousers. Of course, further confusion must have arisen for male visitors to the town who quite probably thought that signs showing only women signified that men were not permitted to cross the road at the same time. Despite the brouhaha, this new gender concept is yet to be rolled out across Spain and the debate continues.

As a seasoned expat in Spain, I still find some road signs puzzling while others are guaranteed to elicit a guffaw. One of my all time favourites on rural tracks is a yellow triangular sign with a simple black exclamation mark in the middle. I’m still not sure what perils lie in the undergrowth but nothing has jumped out and bitten me yet. Another is a rectangular box inside which an arrow points to the sky with the word problemas written below – perhaps suggesting that stressed drivers should seek a little divine inspiration?

The Spanish are quite liberal with animal signage too with one of the most common being that of a black bull inside a red triangle while in the Doñana National Park in Andalucia in Southern Spain, I once spotted a rather endearing sign showing the whiskery visage of an Iberian lynx. There are even lizards and frog symbols on the roadside in Galicia, presumably to stop too many motorists flattening them. Goats are always a popular choice and often appear as an image accompanied by the text: Danger domestic animals passing.
When it comes to traffic signs, most expats enjoy the symbol of a car being pursued by what appear to be two ninjas on speeding motorbikes accompanied by the word precaución. In reality road users are being warned to keep a safe distance between vehicles, but the more entertaining and fanciful notion of sharing the highway with a pack of crazed ninjas would at least afford an adrenalin fuelled ride.

While the storm rages on in the UK about whether to ban signs featuring older people, here in Spain some thought might be given to its own version. The only sign I’ve ever seen features not a couple but just one bowed old man with a stick, surely something for Fuenlabrada’s Municipal Gender Observatory to protest about?

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