Road line painting is something we take for granted, never thinking about who does it, how it works, how they keep the lines straight, what the different solid lines and dashes mean and why they wear out. As one of the people who paint these lines said, “No one notices a straight line, but you paint a crooked line, everyone notices.”

     An article in the New York Times prompted this blog and, as a tribute to some of the unsung heroes of our public service industries, it struck me as a good topic for this week.

     Alex Garza, age 55, who has worked for PK Contracting in Michigan since he was 22, was quoted as claiming that “a good day would produce about 400,000ft of painted lines.”

     Imagine road line painting day after day and keeping them all in a straight line or on a consistent curve radius?

     PK Contracting is the biggest pavement marking company in Michigan and annually paints around 50,000 miles of lines in the season, which stretches from May to October. That’s enough to cross the U.S. over sixteen times.

     Successful companies have to factor traffic patterns, ground texture, cost, irate motorists and weather into all their work. Unfortunately, unless they mess up (crooked lines or, worse fuzzy lines) few will even think about what they do.

     As I read the article, I was reminded of a discussion I had some time ago with the city attorney of the location where I live. I asked him why the city didn’t use the luminous paint I have seen on many European roads. When the streets around me get covered in ice and slush in the winter, it’s almost impossible to see the lanes, and it’s only then that the realization of how important those lane markers are to our safety, actually sinks in. The answer was cost, which may be understandable but seems shortsighted in terms of accident prevention.

     Think for a moment. Can you imagine trying to drive down a three/four lane highway with no lines to follow, and that’s when all the vehicles are travelling in the same direction….hopefully? Forget about driving on a two-lane city street where half the vehicles are travelling in the opposite direction!

     For those of you who have forgotten your rules of the road, you are not supposed to cross a solid line, you can cross an extended “dash” line and you have to stay in lane when you encounter a shorter “dash” line before a turnoff. Not that many of us pay much attention to such restrictions in our daily decision making!!

     How do they keep the lines straight and how do they stop the paint from “running” into the cracks in the road, making the lines fuzzy, which we all notice, and hate? I researched this critical problem more profoundly. A science paper from the U.K. gave me the answer.

     In a word: skill. The white ‘paint’ is made from thermoplastic resin mixed with titanium-dioxide pigment and tiny reflective glass beads. On major roads it’s applied using dedicated road-marking vehicles that deliver the paint under computer control. But that still leaves the challenge of following the surveyed line precisely, and at the correct pace for the conditions, which is the task of the highly skilled (and highly paid) ‘steersman’.

     On smaller roads, the job is even trickier, with the paint being applied from a ‘laying pram’, a simple metal trolley fitted with a heater to keep the paint fluid. The skill now lies in both following the line precisely and at the right rate to ensure the lines are the right thickness and width, and also stopping and starting the flow to achieve the right pattern.

     Geoff Ridd, managing director of Taunton-based (U.K.) RT Roadmarkings, estimates that only around 1 in 1000 people are able to master the technique.

     Aren’t you glad you now know all this? You will now notice road markings and, hopefully, will not become so obnoxious when you encounter a road-painting crew blocking the road.

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