"Only Lane Bike"Geoffrey K. Pullum at Language Log, while complaining about NPR pledge break announcers who think that a person can remember phone numbers spoken on the radio, notes again his earlier point about backwards-ordered lane messages:
Why the hell do all the authorities who put signs on road surfaces in the USA make the completely false assumption that you are going to read the words in the order in which your front bumper arrives at them? It is madness; psycholinguistic bunk. That is not what happens for me. I can't believe anyone has a different reaction. As soon as you see the block of words, you instinctively read them all, from the top. Look at this, which is painted on a road surface on my campus:
What do you see? ONLY LANE BIKE, right? It's the same with XING PED; it's the same with AHEAD STOP; it's the same with CLEAR KEEP. The way they lay them out, backwards them read you. Impeded is comprehension. Am I the only person in the whole United flaming States smart enough to have noticed this and to have realized what the problem is and what the solution would be?
With this in my head, I came upon a situation today that may explain things.
I was driving in moderate-to-heavy traffic, maybe less than 20 mph, when I came upon an instance of backwards-ordered lane markings. Because of the traffic pattern, each word was revealed and then covered, for a couple of seconds each. I forget what the message was, but taking "Only Bike Lane" as the example, I really did read it as "Bike......Lane.....Only...." over about a five-second period. If it had been the other way -- which I agree makes more sense on a higher-speed, clear road -- it would have been "Only....[what? only what?]......Lane.....[only lane? lane only? huh?].....Bike [only...lane...bike... aha! Got it. Bike Lane Only.]" And I would have been confused and slightly distracted for all of that time. (In fact, this is a little bit of the phone number problem now, because it involves holding several words in your head for a few seconds.) But at high speed, although the message is indeed reversed, you see it all at once, and so it's much easier and faster to figure out the reversal.
So maybe the logic is that you trade off an easily-reinterpreted message, at higher speed, to avoid a disproportionately more confusing message in the low-speed case.
(And on the phone numbers -- have you ever noticed how many people leave their phone numbers on your answering machine as if they're trying to prove how quickly they can say the numbers?)