What’s That Thing is Slate’s column examining mysterious or overlooked objects in our visual landscape. To submit suggestions and pics for future columns, drop us an email.
One of the science-fiction franchises I loved best as a child was V, a series packed with duplicitous alien lizards, city-shadowing motherships, and marvelously terrible special effects. So when I saw the above signs on rural highways in upstate New York, the first thing I thought of was the logo from the series’ “Visitors” —the futuristic and mysteriously spooky symbol that appeared on uniforms, posters, and noses of shuttles.
I wondered if the symbols on these road signs denote predesignated evacuation points for Visitors sent to live among us. Or is their purpose more human-oriented and prosaic—symbols to help self-driving cars navigate, perhaps? Vertical Morse code? They reminded me, too, of the lines that mark the entrances to airport runways. Maybe they serve as warnings to road crews about the kind of terrain beyond the roads’ edges?
New York–based transportation guru Sam Schwartz (aka Gridlock Sam) told me that these signs are “completely foreign” to him and his team of traffic engineers. A colleague of Schwartz’s added that the signs don’t appear in the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices—meaning that they’re not standard signs.
A few miles of slow-driving investigation revealed that the signs appear when the center-line markings on the road change—from a dashed line denoting a passing zone to the solid lines that mark a no-passing zone, for example—or when the side of the road on which drivers are permitted to pass changes from one to the other.
But why? Are drivers meant to use these signs, in addition to the regular yellow striping, to help decide when to overtake—maybe when snow covers the center lines? Why are some changes to the striping pattern of a road marked by a sign, but not others?
Gina DiSarro, a public information officer with the New York State Department of Transportation, said that the signs are called “striping shields.” They’re “a reference for highway crews restriping our roads.” In other words, the signs are not intended for use by drivers.
The signs have been used statewide, DiSarro says, and I personally haven’t noticed them outside New York state. (Let me know if you have in the comments.) Why doesn’t every highway in New York have them? “It is not unusual for small roadside signs such as these to be damaged or knocked down over time,” says DiSarro, adding that maintenance crews do their best to replace them. The signs are still used by the crews that—especially after the kind of winters upstate New York is famous for—must diligently repaint the lines that help us drive safely.
See something out there you can’t explain and want to know more about? Send a description or a picture to firstname.lastname@example.org.