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Last Updated: Tuesday, 15 November 2005, 11:30 GMT
Sign of times for M-way services
By Ollie Stone-Lee
BBC News political reporter

A motorway service station signpost
The price of petrol may have changed, but the signs haven't

The generic "spoon and fork" motorway service signs which have been used for decades could be ditched in favour of the specific logos for brands such as McDonalds and Burger King.

Ministers are being urged in talks this week to scrap the rules which have preserved the traditional symbols used on UK motorway signs.

Motorway service operators such as Roadchef, Welcome Break and Moto say the signs are antiquated.

Advertising the presence of well known names at the service station can improve road safety by encouraging more drivers to take a break from driving, they say.

The government is also looking at whether to scrap the ban on alcohol being sold at motorway services.

Some service operators want to be able to serve drink to people staying overnight at their travel hotels.

Ban on services advertising more than their own brand name on motorways
Ban on alcohol sales in motorway service areas
Demands for government to sell-off or lengthen leases on 20 motorway service areas where land might be needed for road widening

Transport Minister Stephen Ladyman and Highways Agency chief Archie Robertson are due to meet with representatives of the firms which run motorway services this week.

Motorway service companies are allowed to display their own name on the road half a mile from the services but cannot show any other brand signs.

Some firms have used a loophole to get around the problem by renaming their operating companies.

For example, Roadchef now has signs for "Roadchef Costa Coffee" while Welcome Break advertises "Welcome Break Kentucky Fried Chicken".

But the firms are now pushing to be allowed to go further.

'Take a break'

Martin Grant, chief executive of Roadchef, compared the current signs to "quaint Egyptian hieroglyphics".

Consumer research suggested the public did not accept them, he said, calling for service operators to be allowed to display "carefully chosen" brand logos.

Mr Grant admitted he had a commercial interest but argued his calls tied into the government's "Take a Break" campaign against driver tiredness.

If we don't fight against this, then the character and sense of place gets lost
Richard Eisermann
Design Council
The Department for Transport urges drivers to take a 15-minute break every two hours, including having a coffee or other high-caffeine drink.

By using the loophole in the rules to display the Costa Coffee logo, Roadchef says it has attracted between 15,000 and 25,000 extra people to its services each week.

George Charters, chief executive of Welcome Break, said: "'Take a Break' is a government initiative. The brands encourage more people to turn in and that is consistent with road safety."

Critics of the plans are worried that too many brand names could be a distraction for motorists.

But Mr Charters said the brands were recognisable "in a microsecond".

He also said there could be a maximum limit of four brand signs and argued the changes would not mean British motorways covered with the forest of signs seen on American highway intersections.

1960s design

Road signs can prove a sensitive issue as Little Chef discovered last year when it proposed slimming down the waistline of the tubby cook on its signs. The idea was dropped after 15,000 customers objected.

The traditional generic signs of cups of coffee, spoons and forks and a single bed already have fans leaping to their defence.

Stephen Ladyman
Mr Ladyman does not want services to be a destination in their own right

There are already complaints that every high street looks identical.

And Richard Eisermann, director of design & innovation for the Design Council, said allowing more brand names would make British roads look the same as anywhere else in the world.

"What's so lovely about the current system is it was so wonderfully designed by Margaret Calvert in the early 1960s," he said.

The British system needed to be kept free from the "disease" of global branding, he argued.

"If we don't fight against it, then the character and sense of place - even though you are travelling through it - gets lost," added Mr Eisermann.

Alcohol ban

The Highways Agency says signage may be part of a review of the motorway services rules now under way.

A draft document to be used in a 12-week public consultation exercise is due by mid-December, with the final recommendations due in the second half of next year.

But minister Mr Ladyman stressed in a letter to operators: "I am concerned that motorway service areas do not become destinations in their own right."

A Highways Agency spokeswoman said the review would also review the ban on selling or drinking alcohol within motorway services, or in the overnight lodges on the sites.

Distraction fears

Mr Charters said the results of a survey he had carried out at lodges at Welcome Break sites would be put to the agency.

More than half of the lodge guests said they would visit a local pub or restaurant - meaning they might drink and drive.

"There's a coherent case for allowing us to sell alcohol to residents in the lodges," he said.

But he accepted the government was unlikely to agree to allow alcohol outside the lodges.

And Roadchef's Martin Grant said allowing alcohol sales was an "absolute no goer" and not worth the effort of having the argument.

Aimee Bowen, spokeswoman for road safety charity Brake, said that if alcohol was sold to services guests, the hotels should have to ensure drivers knew the dangers of being over the alcohol limit the morning after drinking.

She said any moves to allow more brand signs on motorways should be vetted by safety experts.

"It is important to encourage drivers to take breaks on long journeys, but it is also important to minimise distractions on the road," said Ms Bowen.

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