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What makes a good road sign?

A blue motorway signLots of road signsA no-entry signA speed camera sign

By Dominic Koole
BBC News

The speed camera sign is instantly recognisable but the "no stopping" sign isn't. As a review of British road signs is launched, what makes some good and others bad?

Many road signs are bizarre when thought about logically. Just what is one meant to do if there is a danger of falling rocks?

And if the road is slippery, will your car tyres really cross like the alarming skid marks seen on the sign?

Danger of slipperly road
Interesting skid marks

But even if some symbols do not stand up to scrutiny, they convey a message that is quickly recognised.

Or at least, that's the hope. Out of 500 drivers surveyed last year, none was able to correctly identify 12 road signs and only one sign - the speed camera - was known to them all.

A review of signs has been launched by the Department for Transport, looking at ways to reduce street clutter and introduce more technology. So what makes a good sign?

CLARITY

"The most important thing is that it works," says Michael Wolff, chairmen of The Sign Design Society.

The current road sign system in the UK was the brainchild of Jock Kinnear and Margaret Calvert and has changed very little since it was introduced in 1965. It is one of the international icons of sign design, according to Mr Wolff.

YOUR ROAD SIGNS
Suggested road signs
We asked you to design a road sign for 21st Century Britain


"The design of a sign must be got down to the simplest possible level," he says.

"The fundamental words in sign design are clarity, consistency and simplicity."

Not only do modern drivers travel faster than before, they are also listening to the radio, chatting on their hands-free phone and trying to subdue rowdy children in the back. Distractions are everywhere.

With so much competition for a driver's attention, a good sign has its work cut out. It must be clear and simple so that it can be seen, read and understood in an instant.

Confusing signs
Confusing signs - give way to oncoming traffic (left) and no stopping

The red no-entry sign is one that, even without words or pictures, conveys its message.

But others don't. Many drivers are unable to recognise the "no stopping" sign.

And former police driving instructor Chris Walker says the "give way to oncoming traffic" sign is hotly debated at driving school because it is illogical and takes too long to work out.

SYMBOLISM

The symbols on signs should

A 19th Century-style bellows camera is used, with great success, to warn of the imminent danger of racking up a speeding fine and rail enthusiasts' hearts must race at the symbol of a steam train before level crossings.

"Symbols don't have to be accurate, they are there to convey an idea and be understood," Mr Wolff says.

Some widely used signs have attracted criticism for being outdated. The image of stooped elderly people crossing a road has been branded as "insulting" by Help the Aged. It originates from a children's competition in 1981.

"Signs must be nationally recognised and clear for international visitors," says Paul Watters, head of roads policy at the AA, as there can be over one million foreign cars on the UK's roads at any one time.

COLOUR AND SHAPE

Different colours provoke very different reactions in the human mind, says Dr David Cowell, who specialises in the psychology of colour.

Rectangular signs are the same shape as a book and therefore give information
David Cowell
Colour psychologist

The brain is very sensitive to the level of energy in the light that passes through your eyes, with different colours of light carrying different amounts of energy.

"Blue [the colour of motorway signage] suggests harmony and relaxation," says Dr Cowell. "It is the colour of nature in relaxed form. It encourages social communication and consideration of others."

Orange and yellow "suggest a positive future", he says, the point being that the colour of signs surrounding roadworks is clearly meant to encourage frustrated drivers to think beyond the current delays.

Different shaped signs also create different psychological reactions, suggests Dr Cowell.

"A triangular sign has points and represents danger," which is why the shape is used for warning signs.

"Rectangular signs are the same shape as a book and therefore give information. Round signs are instructional. They look like the end of a pointing finger giving you an instruction."

UNCLUTTERED

While the fundamental design of the country's road signs has remained unchanged for almost half a century, the number of signs seems to multiplying.

Today British roads can seem crammed with symbols warning drivers of every foreseeable danger, from falling rocks to passing deer. As well as fuelling fears the streetscape is being damaged, the proliferation of signs reduces their effectiveness.

"Drivers now face a system overload," says Mr Walker. "Signs are duplicated, in some cases triplicated, leaving little time for the information to be seen and processed."

Even the most well-designed road sign will be of little use if nobody can make it out.


Below is a selection of your comments.

There are far, far too many signs cluttering up the country. Some quiet, little villages have almost vanished behind a sea of road signs telling us how to drive when we should really be looking at the road. Personally, I think we should get rid of all but the most important ones. We don't need to be told there is a round-a-bout coming up, that we can clearly see 10 meters further down the road.
Mark Harrington, Reading

After a recent holiday to Canada, I am full of praise for our road signage system. Toronto and the surrounding area had fair motorway signage, despite illogical junction numbers and a chaotic lane divide at the junctions. But off the roads and onto the Highways and Routes was a nightmare, especially at night. The majority of signs are the size of an A4 bit of paper and on the junction itself. They only give you enough time to realise you went past it!
Fraser Mason, Rochester, Kent

Its not really a case of designing new signs, its a case of re-educating those who don't know what the current signs mean. Those people who didn't recognise the no stopping sign or give way to oncoming traffic sign simply should not be allowed to drive.
Alex Brogan, Bristol

More signs should be pictorial rather than written words. Especially in this day when you can drive across Europe. Why do we have written signs? Signs saying not suitable for HGVs when a circular sign with a picture of a lorry crossed out (like a no-smoking sign) would work. As it is pictorial it works across languages.
Scott Andrews, Colwyn Bay, north Wales

If you can not make out the road signs then I suggest re-read the Highway Code and this time memorise them all. I passed my test in the 60s and none of the modern signs that confuse me. I do not drive in ignorance, if I find an unusual sign I make it my business to find out what it means, even if it means re-buying the Highway Code book yet again. Be professional about it and confusion disappears. I can only say those who do not know a road sign are just showing their ignorance of the Highway Code book. Read and memorise it.In conclusion, we do not need to spend money re-designing everything as it's perfect as it is and self-explanatory.
John M Tolson, Brockley, London

I've done an advanced driving course and it strikes me that road signs serve one of two purposes. They support the driver who doesn't think ahead (sharp bend ahead, for example - you shouldn't be approaching faster than you can stop in the distance you can see) and give the police something with which to punish the driver who is simply bad. The careful driver would not have contravened the sign because he was driving carefully, while the bad/lazy/incompetent driver needs the sign to tell him how to drive. Remove all signs!
Tom, UK

I have a particular dislike of the "standard" speed camera signs that just show the camera - the signs that include the current speed limit below the picture of the camera are much better.
Brian Wycherley, Congleton, Cheshire

There's nothing redundant about the "falling rocks" road sign. It might not help you avoid a rock as it's falling, but it does alert you to the danger of rocks and debris already on the road.
Mr Henderson, London UK

One sign annoyed me last night: it said "Thank you for driving safely through our village" - er, how did they know? I expect they really meant driving "slowly" rather than "safely" but even so, they didn't know I had been abiding by the speed limit.
Megan, Cheshire UK

Your designs

Suggested road signs

Beware of fighting - Tom Oulton
Many traffic lights ahead - Rachel Bould
Beware of binge drinking - Thomas Cogley
No idiots allowed - Hilary K Wilson

Suggested road signs
Petrol station ahead - Andrew Denyer
Litter dropping not allowed - Graeme Bell
This is Britain - Simon Jones
Turn your engines off - Michael Bailey




SEE ALSO
Road sign clutter removal starts
17 Oct 07 |  South East Wales
In pictures: Funny road signs
02 Mar 06 |  In Pictures

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