December 10, 2006

James Kim Drove into a Death Trap

In a dark snowy winter night in Oregon, CNET editor James Kim drove passed Merlin onto a road marked “23” on the map that he thought would take him, his wife Kati, and two children to a hotel called “Tu Tu Tun Lodge” that they planned to stay that night.

Suddenly he saw the road split into two. There was no marked crossroad on the map, so he had to make a wise guess. Guess it right, his family would arrive at the hotel safe and sound; guess it wrong, and he would never see his families again.

 He guessed it wrong.

 The road on the right turned out to be a BLM road that took them into heavy snow and forest, where his car was stuck in the snow. He went on foot in the snow for 16 miles to seek help and his footprints eventually led to the rescue of his families, but he died in the snow himself. He was not the first one who made the wrong guess there, nor was he the first one who drove into this kind of death trap and died.

    How did this happen?

There are two main reasons why this kind of tragedy happened. There is a common traffic sign designing fallacy that fails to distinguish primary road from the secondary one. At the crossroad between a primary road and a secondary road, the traffic designers often fail to provide any hint to put one above another. Another reason is that drivers often rely on spatial orientations to find direction, not words. In many circumstances -- particularily when the driver is not familiar with the local street names --  sign with spatial symbol or drawing is much more effective than sign with words.

 If there was any hint that the road on the left was the primary road, or if there was a simple symbol indicating that the road on the right was looping backwards on that fateful snowy night, Kim would still be alive today to be with his family. If we can apply these two basic principles to traffic sign, this kind of death traps can be avoided forever.

 It can happen to any one of us. It's time to fix these death traps.