Signs That Don’t Make Sense

Here’s a one-question quiz: Are there more road signs on local, state and federal roads in America, or more Americans who admit to getting lost by not reading the road signs? I actually don’t know the answer to that, but I’m confident that the number is in the millions for both. Given that there are so many road signs, I’m actually surprised at how infrequently we encounter signs that cause confusion. However, thanks to reader submissions, this week we take a look at three signs that could use some explanation.

Our first sign is located near the intersection of Roeder Avenue and C Street. It reads, “STOP WAIT 40 SECONDS.” A reader asked, “What does this mean? What are we stopping for?”

Since the sign doesn’t conform to the standards for road signs and it was in close proximity to a railroad track, I suspected that it might be for train engineers. However, I couldn’t imagine how an engineer could stop a train with such a short distance between the sign and the intersection, given that it takes about a mile to stop a train.

Fortunately, the folks with BNSF had an answer. The sign is intended for train engineers in the switch yard. These trains only travel at about five MPH, so they have no trouble stopping for the sign. In this case, the sign is clearly understood by its intended audience, but is confusing because it’s located close enough to the roadway to be perceived as a road sign.

You’ll find the next sign at the intersection of Grandview Road and Portal Way. Here we have a “No Turn on Red” sign, with a “Trucks Only” sign below it. The question is, “What can trucks do?” Are they prohibited from making a right turn on red, or are they the only vehicles allowed to do it?

The key to understanding this pair of signs is knowing how that second sign works. The “Trucks Only” sign is called a “supplemental plaque.” These plaques modify the scope of the regulatory sign which, in this case, is “No Turn on Red.”  We start with the general rule (no right turns on a red light) and then add the supplemental information about how it applies (only to trucks). Supplemental plaques can also specify a time of day when the regulatory sign is in effect.

The last sign is located in the median of I-5 approaching exit 262 in Ferndale. This sign is intended to let drivers know the name of the road going over the freeway. In this case, the sign reads, “Axton Road,” but the road above is actually Main Street. Main Street turns into Axton Road about a half mile east of the freeway. A reader wrote, “A street sign has only one purpose- to correctly identify the street. If the state thinks it’s required, shouldn’t they at least get the correct name?”

Yes, I agree that if we put up street signs, they should be for the correct street. I wondered if maybe Axton Road started sooner than I thought or if there was some other unusual situation that would result in the sign being correct, so I checked with some experts at the Department of Transportation. After some research they found that the Axton Road signs were installed around 2004, but there was no documentation to indicate why that road name was chosen over Main Street. The latest word from DOT is that it looks like a change is in order.

I suspect that those aren’t the only confusing signs in the Northwest. If you have a picture of a perplexing sign, share it with us. Post it in the comments section of this article at or



One Comment

  1. Hi. I enjoy the column a lot.

    Downtown Bellingham, heading east on Champion… the intersection of Cornwall, after adding the green bike zones, is so confusing. To go straight on Champion across Cornwall requires crossing the intersection diagonally. It’s really confusing, and I’d be concerned that there will be head on collisions between people heading west on Champion and people heading east, who are more or less straight across from oncoming traffic and have to make a very unnatural move to enter the correct lane.

    I keep waiting for the City to update the intersection/I’d assumed that this layout was temporary. Accident waiting to happen.

    Thanks for taking a look.


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