Summer 2004

Common knowledge

Children crossing signs from around the world

Compare the ‘Children crossing’ signs from the world’s roads and you see aspects of national identity emerge. Genteel French children stroll along with their books. The boy is wearing knee-breeches and a smock. Lithe infants dash to school in Holland and Italy. The Roman girl’s pigtails and ribbon echoes the crucifix on the church tower behind the pair. Two former British colonies in Asia, Hong Kong and India, retain the international system of road signs. The school sign in Hong Kong is cleanly laid out with big sister leading younger brother by the hand. The roman type is in a legible humanist sans, as is the Chinese lettering.

The countries with the worst traffic – in my experience, Peru, Portugal and India – show the children sprinting in their road signs. A poor child in Lima sprints for his life through the merciless flow of cars. And the boy running for his life across the deadly highway can be seen in many Indian states. He wears shorts and carries the tiniest schoolbag imaginable. It’s more likely his tiffin tin, containing iddly and gulab jamun.

The problem is that there is no universal code for recognition in road signs. Do these signs inform us there is a school nearby, or simply warn us that children are prone to play in traffic up ahead?