Thursday, February 19, 2015

Caution: Stupid Signs


    As if winter in Chicago weren't bad enough. Hard the heels of the bitter cold, the pelting snow, come these stupid signs set out everywhere.
    "Caution: Falling Ice."
    Caution? What does that mean? How is our caution supposed to manifest itself? What are pedestrians supposed to do? Look up, and get it in the face? As if looking up would give you enough time for anything more than "Oh shi...!" Turn around? As if you could navigate a route that doesn't include the signs, which are everywhere, so common that we barely notice them anymore. Cover your head? Veer off the sidewalk into the street, where the danger of falling ice is replaced by the greater danger of skidding traffic?
    What?
    Then again, the signs are not for pedestrians. They are attempts by building management to off-load responsibility for getting clobbered by an icicle from themselves to those walking by their buildings. And the signs seem to have some legal weight: building owners have an obligation to clear ice and warn pedestrians of hazards, and putting the signs out grimly informing you of falling ice are similar to the signs ordering you not to slip on  freshly mopped floors. Though why those signs don't serve, not as fair warning, but as proof the building owners knew of a potential hazard and did nothing, is a mystery to me, and I've quizzed legal sorts about it.  I addressed the subject last year, in a blog post about a man who was killed by a 100-pound block of ice walking into the Neiman Marcus department store on Michigan Avenue.
     This year seems to be the year that Chicagoans finally realized the idiocy of these signs, and started making fun of them. Over at the Wit hotel, the yellow and black falling ice signs contain a quip from Stephen Wright: "Every so often, I like to go to the window, look up, and smile for a satellite photo." I'm not sure how that applies to falling ice, but give them credit for trying.
    A cleverer sign is at the School of the Art Institute, as seen in this photo sent in by regular reader Tom Brashler. It injects a bit of whimsy into the otherwise obnoxious blend of threats of physical peril mixed with pallid cover-your-ass legalism. 
    I contacted the school to find out the back story behind the sign.
    "The signs were created by SAIC's Instructional Resources and Facilities Management team," said Bree Witt, a spokesperson for the SAIC. "We wanted to address the caution in a clever and playful manner, and also honor the fact that someone will inevitably deface the signage to form other words from "ice" as has happened in the past. And, let's be honest, in a city like Chicago, ice, mice, rice or dice very well could falling off the roofs of the buildings, so pedestrians should be aware of the possibilities. The signs have been well-received and it's great to see people taking photos and laughing as they walk down the street." 
    That must have been earlier in the week, when it was 25 degrees warmer. Right now I could have Jim Gaffigan walking on one side of me and Louis C.K. walking on the other, both telling jokes and tickling me as I rush through this frozen hellscape, and I wouldn't be laughing. But when the weather warms up and breaks, oh, 20 degrees, I'm sure I'll find my good humor again. 


14 comments:

  1. After reading your post, Neil, I'm inspired by an event I observed on my way home from my company's holiday party a year ago. A man stumbled, obviously drunk, onto the same el car as I, dragging one of those signs along. I found it amusing at the time and snapped a picture that makes me laugh every time I see it. Now I realize his genius at exposing millionaire building owners to lawsuits for their obvious lack of ass-covering signs!!!!

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    1. Have you uploaded that photo to www.peopleofthecta.com?

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  2. "As if looking up would give you enough time for anything more than 'Oh shi...!'" I, for one, am crackin' up over here!...

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  3. I seem to remember a column from several years ago in which you mentioned talking to Phillip Corboy about the "awareness" aspect of the signs.

    John

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  4. I'm sure Bob Clifford would carve out five minutes if you'd mention his name a few dozen times

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  5. I guess some building owners actually monitor the falling ice - as the spot where your photo is taken occasionally gets yellow taped off to prevent people from walking there.

    RC

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  6. Reminds me of when I'm driving a two-lane highway through the Smoky Mountains on my way to North Carolina and I see a "Warning: Falling Rocks" sign -- how useful is that? :)

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  7. Of course the signs are liability suit CYA, but maybe the signs motivate people to take the pedway where possible. Or limit their outdoor walking.

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  8. They're a cousin to those "Watch Out for Falling Rocks" signs you used to see on mountain roads in the West. Although the falling-rocks signs were just stupid and useless, not intended to deflect legal liability. (What would you sue--the mountain?)

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  9. The most absurd thing about these "warning" signs is that there's no consensus about what to do about falling ice: Do you hug the wall of the building or do you give it a wide berth? No one knows.

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    1. Wide berth. No question. I've seen falling ice that could kill a person. Wide as possible. Walk on the curb.

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  10. I always ignore them and do not deviate my path because I'm sure some statistician could show that one is more likely to win the PowerBall lottery than to be killed by falling ice in a city. And what if I did deviate my path and that caused me to be hit by ice?

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  11. Sandy, Scribe,

    To me, the point of the "falling rocks" signs could be to warn you that you might come upon an unexpected rock in your lane ahead, so beware. Which, if true, would mean they should say "Warning: Fallen Rocks". : )

    As Mark F. and the post itself point out, the problem with the falling ice signs is that there's nothing you can do about it, regardless, so being warned isn't really helpful. I tend to try to walk as far out toward the street on the sidewalk as I can, but is that the appropriate strategy? No idea...

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  12. The ice falls straight down off of the building. Walk as close to the street as possible when you see those signs. Saturday will be a serious falling ice day. When the weather warms after a cold snap. I've seen crashing ice that would kill a person. State and Lake. It happens.

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