310. Design in Tow.
Aug 29, 2010 at 04:59PM

Nevada treated me to a surprisingly beautiful day of driving. Drive 6,200 miles like I did this month and you'll see lots of bad driving, accidents, almost-accidents, texting-while-driving, road-rage, and your fair share of general recklessness. (The good news is that you'll also see lots of courtesy and consideration all across the country—so there's still hope for humanity yet.) However, let there be no doubt that the road is a dangerous place full of people with varying degrees of driving skills, attitudes and experience. 

For the most part the rules of the road try to minimize the risk and add organization and order to this chaos. A well-marked exit reduces the risk of having someone cut in front of you (and three lanes) to make it in time. A sign on the back of a big rig lets you know he has a huge blind spot and allows you to adjust your following distance. And signs of all sorts portend of changing road conditions—like the Damaged Road sign I came across in Wyoming. Had I not slowed down I'm sure I would have bounced right off the highway. Or have been swallowed whole by the road. It was really damaged. VW Beetle sized pot holes. No joke. Design obviously plays a big part in making such warnings easy to read, noticeable and actionable. And for the most part in the US, it all works pretty well.

There was one thing that I observed during my travels this summer that could use a little design thinking to improve the situation. No less than five times I watched as one car swerved into the path of another car that was pulling a trailer of some sort only to correct themselves just in the nick of time. All five drivers assumed the other vehicle's end was the vehicle's end not guessing the car's length was increased two to three-fold by a trailer. Yes, this problem could easily be avoided by reminding drivers to wait longer before making a passing or switching lane maneuver. But if I'm pulling a trailer behind my truck I'd like to increase my odds of not having someone swerve into the path of what I'm towing. Call me crazy, but people seem to have an issue with this.

Here's the problem in more detail.

First you notice you have to merge right to make an exit but there is a vehicle in the way. The exit is coming up but you have to slow to let the car on the right pass. This is what you see in your right window as the car passes. Remember that you'll need to get over rather quickly to make your exit:

This is what you'd hit if you try to merge too closely to the car's back-end, which can be necessary in some situations such as tight traffic or in a scenario when someone isn't giving you enough space to make a more careful maneuver.

Hey, that car is pulling a trailer! It's not always obvious. Sometimes the trailers are not as tall as the car that is pulling it, so your rear-view will not disclose the extra vehicle length. If the trailer rides low or is really short in height, this makes it even easier to miss. And this obviously works when the towing vehicle passes you too. For instance, if you are trying to merge into the left lane to pass a vehicle and follow a car 'secretly' in tow, the same situation arises. If you pull into the lane too early you'll merge directly into the trailer. Like I said, I've seen this happen many times and on five separate occasions on just this last trip alone.

The problem in graphic form. The blue car can't see the dark car's trailer and merges right into it while pulling in behind the car from either side. So here's the proposal. If an ordinary passenger car or truck is pulling a trailer, they have a magnetized (or vinyl cling) warning emblem placed on their vehicle that informs the cars around them that they are in fact, in tow. It's a simple low-cost solution that would be extremely easy to implement. Even if U-haul was the only company to implement it, three of the close calls I observed may have been prevented. I assume that if you have enough money to buy or rent a trailer (let alone have something worth towing in the first place) you can afford a five to ten dollar magnet. U-haul—and such companies—could provide these magnets as part of their regular equipment. Sure, it's not going to make your car prettier, but neither is that dumb peeing Calvin decal or that 'My kid got your honor roll student pregnant' bumper sticker. (Yeah, I saw one of these. Gross.) Anyway, this isn't about aesthetics, it's about safety.

The In Tow Magnet/Cling at work:

In terms of design, we use a clear symbol of a trailer set in the direction that it's being towed, within an arrow pointing in the same direction. The magnet is cut in the shape of this arrow and would be produced in warning colors or either neon green, construction orange, or high-visibility yellow. Like most warning systems, the decal would be manufactured with reflective qualities making it visible during night towing. The driver could choose a color to best contrast the color of the car he is driving, and place one decal on each of his or her back fenders. Pretty simple.

Nobody. I mean nobody expects an old Saturn to be towing anything:

The In Tow Magnets/Clings:

Even if they've never seen this magnet the fact that it is there might give the driver next to you pause—enough of a pause to help prevent an accident. If the magnets were to be implemented on a wide scale, or even a legal requirement, then everyone would know to look for them. A win in either case.

Just something I was thinking about on a long stretch of road in Colorado. Not sure if anyone makes something like this or not, but I think it's a good idea. Over and out.

Article originally appeared on Graphicology (http://www.graphicology.com/).
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