Dots ‘n’ Dashes

Back in my days in the Boy Scouts, they had a merit badge called “Signaling”. To earn the badge you had to build a basic communication device (buzzer, blinker) and demonstrate a knowledge of Semaphore – visual signaling by flags – and Morse – audible signaling by “dots” and “dashes”. Today most people wouldn’t have a clue about Semaphore, and their only familiarity with Morse might be from the frantic telegraph typing in the movie Titanic.  Dots ‘n’ dashes have stepped down, more associated with the mundane pavement markings of the streets we drive.  Well hey, at least they’re still signaling devices.

“Dashing through the… street…”

Let’s talk about street dashes first.  The highway to our rural neighborhood was recently restriped, mostly dashes but occasionally a solid for safety’s sake.  Some lanes were shifted, and they just covered up the old stripes with blackish paint similar to the asphalt below.  But my car was not fooled, no sir.  It still sees the old striping.  Anytime I pass over those areas my car’s “lane-keeping assist” emits an audible warning and tries to bump me back onto the road, when in fact I’m just passing over covered-up stripes.  That’s annoying.  Either car tech needs to improve or road striping needs to come up with a better cover.  Until one or the other happens I’m all over the road.

Here’s an even better story about dashes.  Long ago, my parents were driving my brothers and me back from my grandparents’ house.  We were cruising along a paved winding road late at night when all of a sudden my dad gets to wondering about those highway dashes.  He starts to guess – if you measured one, how long would a dash be?  Talk about useless information, right?  But then, right in the middle of a darkened highway, no cars in the rear-view mirror, my father stops the car, gets out, and starts measuring a dash, foot-in-front-of-foot like he’s taking a sobriety test.  Then he gets back into the car and announces proudly, “six feet”.  Think about that the next time you pass those stripes at forty miles an hour.  (But please, don’t get out and actually measure one).

California highways are usually dotted, not dashed.

Now let’s talk about street dots.  You know, those round, non-reflective raised pavement markers used to designate lanes and borders and such?  They’re actually called Botts’ dots.  It’s a name I’ve known since childhood because I grew up in California where they were invented.  California has over 25 million of the little guys marking its endless streets.  And if you must know, Botts’ dots were named for their inventor, Elbert Dysart Botts (and how’s that for a mouthful?)

Kinda cute, right?

Botts’ dots might’ve never been a thing were it not for their total makeover.  At first they were glass discs attached to the road with nails. (How’d you like to have that job?  Whack, whack, whack!).  But then they started popping loose, and people got flat tires from the nails and the broken glass.  So Botts (or a coworker) devised a hard plastic to replace the glass and an asphalt-friendly epoxy to replace the nails.  Now the dots – and the speeding cars above them – stay where they’re supposed to.

But now Botts’ dots have a whole new challenge.  We face a future with self-driving cars.  Turns out, Botts’ dots mess with that technology.  The car may or may not recognize a dot as the border of a lane.  That’s not good when you put your steering wheel in the hands of a robo-chauffeur.  But can you imagine the task of removing 25 million Botts’ dots?  That’s worse than hammering them in one by one!

Botts’ dots may go the way of the telegraph.

Over here in rural Colorado, I got pretty excited about the prospect of California surrendering all of its Botts’ dots.  We can use ’em.  You see, out here we have mostly two-lane highways divided by dashes, or occasionally solid lines instead of the dashes (don’t pass!), or very occasionally the luxury of a defined left-turn lane.  But “dash-it-all” when it snows.  You not only lose the striping, you lose the road.  At least a Bott’s dot would make noise and give you a jolt to let you know you’re not about to cruise into somebody’s cow pasture.

Alas, my dream of millions of Botts’ dots flying over the Rocky Mountains died before it was born.  Turns out the asphalt epoxy of a Botts’ dot cannot compete with the combined weight and speed of a snowplow.  The dots’d go flying every which way from the snowplow blade, like hundreds of tiny shuffleboard discs.  Ping! Ping! Ping!

Signaling merit badge was retired by the Boy Scouts in 1992 (yet another reminder of my advancing age).  Looks like the Botts’ dot is headed for a similar scrap heap, at least if self-driving cars become more mainstream.  Meanwhile, you’ll find me out in my neighborhood navigating the painted dashes.  Even if I do prefer the dots.

Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

11 thoughts on “Dots ‘n’ Dashes

  1. I still have my sash after all these years and oddly enough, Signaling is not in the mix. I would’ve been happy to build a signaling device. Maybe I read the Semaphore requirement and fled to other badges same as you.

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  2. You raise several interesting points Dave, about self-driving cars…..I wonder if they will be able to accommodate all the different ways of designating lanes, and yes what happens when it snows like tonight and you can’t even see the road! I’ve never even heard of road dots. I hope those car engineers are thinking about these things.

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  3. This was really interesting. I chuckled about the Bott’s dots, did not know what they were called. My parents would go on long road trips. If my Dad got tired, he would have by Mom drive. Guess what, she would run over the Bott’s dots off and on and my Dad who was trying to sleep would go NUTS! Stay in the middle of the road, he would shout!

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  4. Your car is smart Dave and I doubt it is a Smart car. I dread getting a new car as there will be a lot to learn and I’ll be older. I’ll need a crib sheet to find my way around. My car is a 2009 LaCrosse and barely passed the 8,200 mile mark. When I got it, I felt like I was at the controls of a jet liner as my prior car was 21 years old, but developed electrical issues and we had to part. The driverless cars sure do scare me – so many little details that can derail their brains. I learned a lot about the pavement markings in this post. I am trying to think if we had to learn Semaphore when I was in Brownies. We had requirements for memorization but I struggle to remember if flags/signalling was one of the badge requirements. I believe I still have the little brown book I carried in my uniform pouch that marked my badge accomplishments.

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  5. We agree on our cars, Linda. I bought my first Acura SUV in 2002 and kept it for 14 years and almost 300,000 miles. Then I turned around and bought the exact same car again. Acura added too many bells/whistles to the newer version for my taste (as you said – a lot to learn), but bottom line it’s a safe, dependable car, so why not get another? As for Scouts/Brownies, I think you and I invested too much time and energy into those badges and other achievements to just let things disappear into a dusty memory box. I still display my Eagle Scout certificate on my home office shelf after all these years 🙂

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  6. I wish I had invested more in scouting as a kid. Basic signaling with flags was the last requirement for moving into 1st Class but I just couldn’t see the point. But now if I were in trouble with nothing but signal flags for help, I’d be a goner. Of course that hasn’t happened yet.

    The Botts dots are interesting. Here in snow country they cut a bazillion little furrows in the berm that run perpendicular to the lines. When you stray outside the line the effect is like with the dots, only they aren’t bothered by snow plows.

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