Sunday, April 19, 2009

What's Your Number?

A week or two ago, I wrote a short article for our local newsletter thing, about having house number signs that are readable from the road, at night. It started out:

Imagine this.
It's 3:30am.
You're woken by the loud beeping from your pager,
and a voice in the night telling you that there is an emergency.

It went on to weave a tale of being unable to find the number, having to slow down, trying to avoid missing the number and having to find a place to turn around. In the story, the person stopped breathing before anyone could find the house.

This morning, the pager went off at 4:30.
I jumped out of bed, grabbed my watch, hopped into my clothes and shoes and headed out the door.

As we drive down the road, I, as the passenger, was looking for house numbers. I knew approximately where the house would be, but not exactly.

I saw number 1537.
The next readable number was 1395.

The house we were looking for was 1401.

We missed it. Had to find a place to turn around.

Fortunately, our outcome was better than in my original story. The patient turned out okay.

But it so easily could have been otherwise.

We drove back by that stretch of road this morning. I wanted to see what the numbers were, what I had missed, if I should have seen one that I didn't. The answer is that no, I didn't miss anything. In that stretch of road, there are no readable house numbers. Lots of houses with black mailboxes- some, but not all, across the road from the driveways- with tiny numbers, or no numbers at all.

We only get one chance to see the number. We can look at a mailbox, at the house, or at a sign at the end of the driveway, but we don't get to look at more than one place. If what we look at doesn't have it, we're on to the next house. Sometimes, it's hard to even see the house, if you can see it at all.

This is an old, old story in emergency services, the need for visible, readable house numbers. Some places require people to have their numbers painted on the curb, and repainted each year. I think that's a great idea. But out here, there aren't curbs. Some places, the houses are pretty close together, and the streets are well lit. Out here, there are long stretches of dirt roads with no lighting at all. And the distance between houses varies widely, from feet to miles. Likewise, the numbers are not a predictable amount apart- and sometimes, aren't even in order! One road near my house, the numbers go 548, 592, 560, 602. Fortunately, I drive by there several times a day most days, so I know about it.

My point in mentioning it is not only to encourage people to put large, reflective, white-on-dark number signs at the end of their driveways (not across the street on the mailbox!!), although I would be pleased if everyone did that.

It's to question why it is, how it can be possible, that so many houses do NOT have numbers that can be read from a vehicle driving down the road.

There are a few varieties. Let's look at each one.

1. Numbers on mailbox, but too small to see. I think these people assume the numbers are there for the postal service. The thing is, the mail truck stops at every house most days, so it is easy for them to see the small numbers, from a stopped position right by the mailbox. And they know what the next number will be, because it's printed on the mail they are delivering. So small numbers are no big deal.

2. Numbers on the end of the mailbox, not on the sides. Likewise, great for the mailman, not possible to see from a distance.

3. Sign, but across the road from the house. Better. And it's convenient to put it on the mailbox post. But sometimes, it's not as clear as you might think what house that mailbox goes with, especially if there are several next to each other. Plus, it is usually the passenger who is looking for numbers, not the driver, and that puts the number on the far side of the road, more difficult to see. It also causes swivel-head, trying to figure out where the mailbox is, which side to look at.

4. Number on the house, big as day. Great, for confirming that indeed, this is the house that goes with that number. Or for when you are visiting a friend, and have directions to the house, but need to be sure it is the right one. Easy to see- once you have driven into the driveway. Trouble is, we won't be driving in that driveway before we know the number. So we won't see it.

5. Number sign, at the end of the driveway, but parallel to the road, rather than perpendicular. Again, good for confirmation, but not possible to see while driving. Some of these I've seen are on lovely decorative posts. Nice to look at maybe, but not helpful.

6. Number obstructed by something. Often by the mailbox flag, or the newspaper tube. Yes, it's easy for YOU to see that number, because you already know what it is. Not so easy for us.

The question remains, why do people do these things? Why is it that they sometimes put considerable effort into how they mark their houses, but choose to do things that aren't appropriate?

I think most of these people believe they have done an adequate job. After all, THEY know what the number is, and where it is, and they see it every time they drive in their driveway. It works fine for the mail delivery, and for friends coming over, so what's the problem? No one else has any trouble finding their house. The FedEx guy hasn't ever complained.

I think the problem is one of perspective.
Coming from the perspective of already knowing the number, any of those variations are easy to see.
But from the perspective of in the dark, in an emergency, trying to find which house is the right one, none of them work well at all.

Most people don't ever HAVE that emergency perspective, and happily so.

Most people, when they need to find a house number, slow down and look. I'm sure most people have been behind a driver doing just that, more than once. You can tell exactly what they are doing. From that perspective, as long as there IS a number, somewhere, it all works out fine.

The important thing that this all illustrates is how easy it is for people to have different perspectives, sometimes dramatically so. How one person can believe that something has been done, and done well, and another can see it as entirely useless.

And I'm not only talking about house number signs.


Tamara of In the Night Farm said...

Thank you, Linda. I have clear numbers on my house and mailbox, but not on a sign by the drive. Time to do more than think about it, eh?

Between you and SJ, I have NO excuse to be ill-prepared for an emergency. :)

GreenJello said...

I have numbers on my house and my mailbox... the house numbers are visible from the street (but are non-reflective).

I think it's high time I paint numbers on my curb!

hilinda said...

Tamara- we're working on you. :-)

Lori- visible from WHERE on the street? Three houses away? That's the part that most people don't understand.

Drive around at night sometime, with the goal of finding a certain number that you don't know exactly where it is. See whether you can keep track of numbers as you drive by.