Defacing Traffic Signs

In many big American cities, the defacing of traffic signs is a constant eyesore apart from the great trouble causing drivers. In the Silicon Valley where I live, such act seems to be on the increase.

Along Highway 280 going south in the city of San Jose, the biggest defacing I’d ever seen was the large words, “R.I.P. Tommy”, written on a railway overpass. The government cleaned it up after a few weeks. Millions of commuters passing underneath saw it. People began to ask: Who the hell was Tommy?

The surprising thing was that the words were artistically painted. How they did it on the 50-foot-high overpass baffled everybody. They had to do it in a hurry above a major highway because the police would come soon. They must do it in the early morning hours to ensure being seen by fewest people. Above all else, they had to dangle themselves from the highway overpass, a most dangerous act. I came to the conclusion that it was the work of Spiderman.

Apart from this impressive one done by a brave artist (not on a traffic sign), the rest of the defacing are a great nuisance. How does the police deal with it? Obviously, the police seldom catches the offenders red-handed because the defacing keeps on increasing.

The most practical measure is for law enforcement to clean up and replace the signs as soon as they see them. This is a psychological battle in essence. The offenders want their work to be seen for as long as possible. If the traffic sign is cleaned up the next day, what incentive will be there for defacing?

This strategy has been shown to work in New York City back in the 1970’s whose buses and subway cars were heavily defaced both inside and out. When the cars came back to the depot at night, a team of workmen would clean and paint them again. This ensured all the illegal “artwork” could only last less than a day. As a result, the defacing dropped dramatically because it made no point doing it.

December 2013

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