The parable of the wonky white lines

wonky white line in Dorset street

A bizarre traffic calming idea in Dorset didn't quite end up as intended. What happened, asks Tom de Castella.

It began as a saga about wonky white lines. A typical English residential street with one unexpected quirk - the dotted line down the middle appeared to take leave of its senses. The road in Wimborne, Dorset, was straight as an arrow, but the centre line made a series of meanderings. Soon photos of the wonky road markings had gone from local to national press. It fitted into the modern journalistic genre of road marking porn - exhibit A the double yellow line in a tiny Swindon alleyway barely wide enough for a bicycle, exhibit B a code to those gnomic squiggles on the tarmac.

Wordplay was to the fore in the Wimborne coverage. "Long and winding road baffles drivers on the rat-run," offered the Times. The Daily Mail suggested that motorists "are being driven around the bend." Locals expressed confusion. One suggested it might be down to drunken traffic engineers. Far from being the result of a workman's liquid lunch, the arcing lines were deliberate, said Dorset County Council. It was all a cunning plan - or "traffic engineering scheme" - to slow vehicles down, said Adrian Norcombe, from the council's highways department. It appears to be a one-off. Traffic flow expert Prof Benjamin Heydecker at University College London says it's the first such wavy line he's seen. He's a fan. "It looks good. It guides the traffic away from the parking bay." By creating uncertainty in the mind of the driver, you give them a subtle nudge to slow down, added a spokeswoman at the Chartered Institution of Highways & Transportation.

And yet, there was still time for a twist. After the story broke, the council did a U-turn on the wonky lines. It decided to make them slightly less, erm, wonky. "After recent resurfacing work the lines were renewed, but the curve in the markings was more pronounced than it should have been," the council's latest statement reads. "We have now corrected this and apologise for any problems this may have caused." And thus a tale about wonky lines ends up as parable about the dangers of messing with traditional traffic iconography. Or as a Dorset County Council spokeswoman says: "Road markings and road signs are quite an emotive subject."

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