UX of Directional Signs at Border Crossings

I occasionally watch the TV show Border Security and one of the things that always bothers me is when they have someone who was driving in the U.S. near the border without intending to cross into Canada, but took a wrong turn and ended up at the border crossing.

Definitely street and road signs are often confusing; there have been many times I’ve missed an exit or taken the wrong turn because I couldn’t figure out what the signs were telling me. But I would think that near an international border they would do everything possible to make sure people don’t cross the border accidentally.

Oddly, if you wind up at a border crossing, they don’t let you just turn around and go back. Even if you didn’t intend to enter Canada, once you are at the border you are considered to be entering Canada and all the relevant laws and rules apply. If you weren’t planning to cross the border, you probably aren’t prepared and this can cause big problems: you probably don’t have your passport with you, you may have items in your car that are legal in the U.S. but not in Canada (guns, for example), or your immigration status in the U.S. may not allow you to leave and re-enter the U.S.

I found a message board where people were discussing this problem, and it seems that while most crossings have good signage, some don’t:

“Some of them aren’t well marked, there’s a small sign below an exit sign saying ‘Last USA exit’. Easy to miss if you’re not paying attention. Not a bunch of flashing bright yellow overhead signs saying ‘EXIT NOW IF YOU DON’T WANT TO GO TO CANADA!!!!!’”

Personally, I think they should have bright, flashing signs to make sure it’s absolutely clear that it’s your last chance to not leave the country.

It’s understandable that small crossings in the middle of nowhere don’t have a lot of warning, but presumably if you’re on a rural road, you can just turn around and go back. That’s not possible at major highway crossings. When this issue comes up on the Border Security show, it seems that’s it’s always at the Peace Arch crossing in Blaine, Washington, so maybe it’s just that particular crossing that has a problem with their signs.

In general, border crossing signs suffer from the same problems as road signs in any place where there are complex traffic patterns, with multiple lanes of traffic being sent in different directions. At high-volume border crossings, vehicles are divided up into personal and commercial lanes, and there are also separate lanes for Nexus card holders and for a few other purposes.

When I first got my Nexus card in the office at the Champlain, NY, crossing, the agent explained to me that it was my responsibility to remember the Nexus lane hours for Champlain, as the open/closed sign above the lane would always read “Closed” even when the lane was open. They do that because otherwise non-Nexus travelers would try to enter that lane. You would think they could find some other solution with their signage instead of using inaccurate signs to manipulate traffic.

I’ve never unintentionally crossed the border, but once at the Detroit crossing I accidentally ended up in a commercial lane instead of the regular section. I realized this once I pulled up in line behind a semi truck, but at that point it’s too late to do anything. The person in the booth seemed pretty annoyed with me and had me drive across empty lanes to get to the correct section.

Now I’m always super-careful when I’m driving across the border (which I do at least a few times a year), but it’s really intimidating and I’m always scared I’ll end up in the wrong lane. I’m sure their UX is purposely designed to intimidate, but at least they should make sure people end up in the right place.

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