Bilingual road signs may kill
A debate in Wales tells us much about trade-offs, intellectual honesty and nationalism
Recently in Wales, there has been debate about the effects of bilingual road signs. Such signage has been a legal requirement since 1983, yet there are periodic objections on safety grounds. This week, the Telegraph reported such an objection, Monmouthshire council claiming that bilingual signs might confuse ambulance drivers. Nationalists reacted furiously. In a tweet which achieved almost one thousand likes (a lot for Welsh Twitter), Senedd (the Welsh parliament) member Delyth Jewell asked whether Telegraph journalists had ever left England. Such ridicule is typical and satirical articles sometimes appear in the Welsh press.
Whilst I love the Welsh language – I speak Welsh, alas not fluently, and my daughter goes to a Welsh-medium school - such reactions are unreasonable. Undeniably, inclusion of Welsh in road signage makes information more ambiguous. Academic evidence could be better, yet experimental studies suggest that Welsh-English signage impacts various dimensions of driving performance, more complicated signs increasing cognitive load and distractions.
Alas, real-world evidence is scarce. In 2012, researchers evaluated bilingual signage in Scotland, finding no evidence that deaths and serious injuries (DSIs) were higher on roads with the signage. Yet this is just one study. Future research could use different methods. For example, researchers might compare accidents in the Welsh-English border regions, using the regression discontinuity design (RDD) method. Whilst this would be challenging – researchers would have to test other differences associated with Wales – there seems to be need for such studies.
Notwithstanding the lack of good evidence, the hypothesis that bilingual signage leads to increased DSIs is surely reasonable, given the extra informational complexity and cognitive demands. Indeed, the Scottish study concedes that bilingual signage requires more concentration. Drivers encounter these signs on millions of occasions, only a few cases of confusion and misfortune entailing more DSIs.
More broadly, this debate tells us much about policy trade-offs, intellectual honesty and nationalism. Almost invariably, Welsh nationalists meet such arguments with ridicule and instant dismissal. This is unfortunate. A sophisticated response might concede that bilingual signs may kill, yet are worth it anyway. Whilst this reasoning sounds shocking, it is commonplace (though seldom made explicit!) in public policy. For example, the reduction of speed limits to 10mph in urban areas would lead to fewer deaths, but few propose this. Public policy involves trade-offs; in this case, policymakers must consider economic efficiency and the civil liberties of car owners. One could make a similar argument for bilingual signage; I would respect nationalists who did this.
Certain nationalists probably suspect that bilingual signage leads to increased DSIs. But politically, this is unsayable. Were nationalists to acknowledge this, they would hand prime ammunition to opponents and face backlash from their ingroup. Rather, mocking the claims of opponents is a better strategy, reflecting the counterintuitive nature of this hypothesis. Bilingual signage does not confuse most people – at least, not on a conscious level. But we are talking about millions of encounters with such signage, only a few cases of confusion and misfortune entailing more DSIs. I am not familiar with similar debates in countries such as Switzerland and Belgium, yet nationalists probably use similar tactics. In likelihood, this indicts human reasoning and liberal-democratic political cultures, rather than Wales.
But there are issues with Welsh political culture. In certain circles, the Welsh language is a holy cow. Aside from nationalists, much of the political and cultural elite regard the language in these terms, including many members of the Welsh Labour government. Resultingly, many will not make any criticisms of Welsh. This is a shame. Whilst I love Welsh and wish to promote the language, I do not think that anything should be beyond criticism; this encourages preference falsification and diminishes politics and culture, entailing stagnation and lack of democratic accountability.
The organization of Welsh politics compounds this. Wales is small and Labour has been in power for too long – it may now be the longest serving national or regional government in Europe – entailing cosy links with civil society; this deters criticism and encourages favouritism. In several areas – topics associated with social justice ideology are another – atmospheres are more challenging in Wales. This must change. In liberal democracies, one should be able to debate without fear of ridicule or ostracism. Sometimes, lives may even be at stake.
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