The Balance of Cone Power

After my last post—re whether it’s anti-British to say British Petroleum when you mean BP—it’s a bit of a jolt to come back to amusing observations about the differences between the US and the UK as played out in inconsequential everyday ways. But I don’t want this space to turn permanently to politics, so with apologies for long absence (while writing for outlets other than this blog), I’ll get back down to the important things—such as highway cones.

Think they have enough cones out?

Here’s my theory: There are the same number of highway cones in the UK and US, it’s just that the US has more roads, so has to spread them more thinly. That would explain, I think, why any little patch of paving where work is being done here is virtually covered with highway cones.

The UK is a little smaller than Oregon. The UK, please note, includes Wales, a point I make because everybody over here seems to use Wales as the benchmark for size. There are sheep farms in Australia, someone will say, the size of Wales. Radio newscasters report an Indonesian forest fires by telling us it destroyed an area the size of Wales. Yorkshire is twice the size of Wales according to a BBC News report, and the Navajo Reservation is three times the size of Wales (also BBC News; different report).

Even the French do it: the website of a Christian diocese in Aquitaine says it draws parishioners from an area the size of Wales, which is funny because if the British need a larger standard of measurement, they use France: Darfur is the size of France, the Arctic icecap has decreased by an amount twice the size of France, Iran is three times the size of France.

At, you can convert any measurement of area you like into units of “the size of Wales”, which is how I know that the United Kingdom is almost 12 times the size of Wales. (Scotland is almost four times as big, England over six times, and Wales itself, of course, is exactly the size of Wales.) The USA, however, is so big that their conversion calculator couldn’t handle it—couldn’t even handle the size of just California—so I had to do the long division myself in order to tell you that the US is about 473 times the size of Wales.

That explains, I think, the way we use our highway cones. In California, the cones are spaced out into great lazily-dotted lines to show you where you’re meant to drive and not to drive. There can be a couple of car-lengths (another unit of measurement!) or more between each pair of cones leaving plenty of room for you to move through them and into a forbidden zone if you like, so you’re on your honor to stay on the correct side.

In the UK, the cones stand shoulders to shoulder, sometimes actually touching, making a nearly solid line. No way are you driving across that. The US simply doesn’t own enough cones for this to be feasible; we have too many miles of roads to cover.

We also have more time to use our cones. In California, road maintenance teams work fairly steadily all year round (except at higher elevations, such as in the Sierras). In the UK, you have to make roads while the sun shines—which isn’t often—and since the winters here are hard on roads, springtime in England means traffic slowdowns for road maintenance seemingly everywhere, as though April showers bring orange-and-white cones.

The sign on the right reads Adverse Camber, a new one to me; it means that the slope of the road from side to side (like banking a turn) is the opposite of what it should be

The British take their highway cones seriously. On a British vacation before we moved here, we kept seeing signs for the Cones Hotline giving a phone number, and had no idea what that could mean. We dreamed up possibilities: if you had an emergency need for cones, maybe you could call the Cones Hotline and a motorway maintenance vehicle would come speeding to you with reinforcements; or perhaps the closely-spaced cones constitute a sort of chain-gang, and you’re meant to notify authorities if one escapes. Before that trip was finished, cones seemed to have taken on a sort of independent life, and it was easy to imagine a group of stray cones at the side of the road as youths slouching around, probably smoking, while the rest stood to attention and did their duty.

The government, it turned out, provided the Cones Hotline so that motorists could find out before setting off on a journey (not a ‘leaving on a trip’, as Americans would say) where they would encounter road works, but also so that people could report areas in which cones were set out for no apparent reason. As I can’t think why anybody would go to the effort of setting out cones if they weren’t either doing road works or working a crafty Mission: Impossible-type diversion scheme, I assume we’re talking about leftover cones that road workers abandoned. That’s actually one of the things we had guessed, but we just said it for laughs—why would you need a hotline for that?

Leftover cones, loitering with intent

The answer is that you don’t. The Cones Hotline operated for about three years and logged fewer than 20,000 calls total, some of which were pranks, commonly involving people asking for ice cream. The term cone syndrome flourished briefly—so briefly it can’t be found in the Oxford English Dictionary, or any other dictionary I tried, for that matter—as a phrase to describe the government’s predilection for passing stupid laws.

I’ve worked through the math. The UK has about a quarter of a million miles of roads and 62 million people, give or take, and the US has two-and-three-quarters million miles of roads for almost 310 million people. That means we have twice as many miles of road per person, and—and this could be serious—I very much fear we do not have cone parity. Yes, the USA has put astronauts on the moon, but in terms of highway cones, it may lag sadly behind.

I could suggest that American readers consider writing to their Senators and Representatives about this vital issue, except that would take me right back to politics, which is exactly what I’m trying to avoid today.



Filed under Culture, Just For Fun, Travel

6 responses to “The Balance of Cone Power

  1. So Wales is exactly the size of Wales, is it? Hmm.. Doesn’t that depend if the tide is in or out?

  2. Diane McAlpin

    Brilliant as always, snorkelMEF! Though I simply refuse to believe that the US is losing the Cone War; where-oh-where is our national pride??

    I’m still giggling at using Wales as a yardstick. In the medical field we use fruits and vegetables to convey size, so that tumors (and breasts) are traditionally the size of grapefruit, hemorrhoids are the size of grapes, and blood in the stool appears as ‘coffee grounds.’ Lumps are either pea-sized or walnut-sized and occasionally there will be a 20 lb watermelon-sized growth removed from somebody’s abdomen.

  3. Tricia

    I wonder if you must next address the related bizarre phenomenon of British people putting traffic cones on statues, often when out in groups after drinking. And always touted as the funniest thing ever.

    Perhaps this is some kind of reaction against the overpopulation of cones, a way to subvert the instinctual fear of their domination over humans by putting them in embarrassing situations?

  4. Diane McAlpin

    More politics; Wales has some stiff competition from Belgium…

  5. OK, sure, so the US is skimpy when it comes to cones — but we have OTHER methods! Does the UK have orange-and-white barrels? Jersey walls? Big yellow barrels of sand in case someone veers toward a Jersey wall instead of an exit ramp? Trucks that tote huge flashing arrows to cone zones?

    And do you have Sign Men (and Women) whose job it is to stand at either end of a a one-lane construction project, and turn their sign-on-a-stick either to STOP or SLOW to direct traffic, hopefully in coordination with their fellow Sign Person at the other end of the construction? (I always hope they’re not having a bad day.)

    We make up for our relatively sparse supply of cones in many creative ways, but we haven’t caught onto the cone-as-a-hat statue thing yet. Thanks for the great idea! I’m heading for the Lincoln Memorial now…

  6. I like a nation which takes its cones seriously—especially if they (it) fill(s) them with ice cream.

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