Traffic sign

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A U.S. warning sign about children in the road, and a speed limit notice
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A U.S. warning sign indicating that drivers who do not wish to exit immediately should merge left, and a prohibitory "No Stopping" sign

Most countries place signs, known as traffic signs or road signs, at the side of roads to impart information to road users. Since language differences can create barriers to understanding, international signs using symbols in place of words have been developed in Europe and adopted in most countries and areas of the world. Annexe 1 of the Vienna Convention on Road Signs and Signals of November 8, 1968 defines eight categories of signs:

  • A. Danger warning signs
  • B. Priority signs
  • C. Prohibitory or restrictive signs
  • D. Mandatory signs
  • E. Special regulation signs
  • F. Information, facilities, or service signs
  • G. Direction, position, or indication signs
  • H. Additional panels

However, countries and areas categorize road signs in different ways.



The earliest road signs gave directions; for example, the Romans erected stone columns throughout their empire giving the distance to Rome. In the Middle Ages multidirectional signs at intersections became common, giving directions to cities and towns.

Traffic signs became more important with the development of automobiles. The basic patterns of most traffic signs were set at the 1908 International Road Congress in Rome. Since then there have been considerable change. Today they are almost all metal rather than wood and are coated with retroreflective sheetings of various types for nighttime and low-light visibility(see retroreflection).


United States of America


North America and Australia

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A reflective stop sign with a black background, and two reflective street signs with the Orlando, Florida city logo.

In North America and Australia, signs generally adhere to the following colours:

Regulatory signs are also sometimes seen with white letters on red or black signs. In Quebec, the usage of blue and brown is reversed, and many black-on-yellow signs are red-on-white instead. Many U.S. states now use fluorescent orange for construction signs, and fluorescent yellow-green (FYG) for school zone, crosswalk, pedestrian, and bicycle warning signs. Fluorescent pink signs are sometimes used for incident management warning.

 are one of the important types of traffic signs
Warning signs are one of the important types of traffic signs

Every state and province has different markers for its own highways, but use standard ones for all federal highways. Many special highways, such as the Queen Elizabeth Way or Trans-Canada Highway, or originally on U.S. highways like the Dixie Highway, have used unique signs. Counties in the U.S. sometimes use a pentagon-shaped blue sign with yellow letters for numbered county roads, though the use is inconsistent even within states.

American road signs measure distances in miles rather than kilometres. Traffic signs in the United States have been standardized through the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD), though they sometimes still vary from state to state, particularly on older signs.

Signs in most of Canada, the U.S. and Australia are written in English . Quebec uses French, while New Brunswick uses both English and French and a number of other provinces such as Ontario and Manitoba use bilingual French-English signs in certain localities. Mexico uses Spanish . Within a few miles of the U.S.-Mexico border, road signs are often in English and Spanish.

The typefaces predominantly used on signs in the U.S. are the FHWA alphabet series (Series B through Series F and Series E Modified). Details of letter shape and spacing for these alphabet series are given in "Standard Alphabets for Traffic Control Devices," first published by the Bureau of Public Roads (BPR) in 1945 and subsequently updated by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). It is now part of Standard Highway Signs (SHS), the companion volume to the MUTCD which gives full design details for signfaces. Initially, all of the alphabet series consisted of uppercase letters and digits only, although lowercase extensions were provided for each alphabet series in a 2002 revision of SHS. Current Series B through Series F evolved from identically named alphabet series which were introduced in 1927. Straight-stroke letters in the 1927 series were substantially similar to their modern equivalents, but unrounded glyphs were used for letters such as B, C, D, etc., to permit more uniform fabrication of signs by illiterate painters. Various state highway departments and the federal BPR experimented with rounded versions of these letters in the following two decades. The modern, rounded alphabet series were finally standardized in 1945 after rounded versions of some letters (with widths loosely appropriate for Series C or D) were specified as an option in the 1935 MUTCD and draft versions of the new typefaces had been used in 1942 for guide signs on the newly constructed Pentagon road network. The mixed-case alphabet now called Series E Modified, which is the standard for destination legend on freeway guide signs, originally existed in two parts: an all-uppercase Series E Modified, which was essentially similar to Series E except for a larger stroke width, and a lowercase-only alphabet. Both parts were developed by the California Division of Highways (now Caltrans) for use on freeways in 1948-50. Initially the Division used all-uppercase Series E Modified for button-reflectorized letters on ground-mounted signs and mixed-case legend (lowercase letters with Series D capitals) for externally illuminated overhead guide signs. Several Eastern turnpike authorities blended all-uppercase Series E Modified with the lowercase alphabet for destination legends on their guide signs. Eventually this combination was accepted for destination legend in the first manual for signing Interstate highways, which was published in 1958 by the American Association of State Highway Officials (AASHO) and adopted as the national standard by the BPR. A new typeface family titled "Clearview" has been developed by U.S. researchers in recent years to provide improved legibility, and is currently permitted for light legend on dark backgrounds under FHWA interim approval.


Despite efforts to devise pan-European standards, the European Union has not yet standardised road signs across member states, with non-member states also differing in road signage. All EU members currently use the metric system for road signs, with the exception of the UK.


Main article: Road signs in the Republic of Ireland

Until the partition of Ireland in 1922 and the independence of Southern Ireland (now the Republic of Ireland) British standards applied across the island. Some time after independence, road signs in the south were changed to differ from the UK standard, most visibly in the adoption of US-style "diamond" signs for many road hazard warnings (junctions, bends, railway crossings, traffic lights). Some domestic signs were also invented, such as the stay-left sign (a black curved arrow pointing to the upper-left), while some other signs are not widely adopted outside Ireland, such as the no-entry sign (a black arrow pointing ahead in a white circle with a red slashed circumference). See also Roads in Ireland

United Kingdom

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See text for information.

Traffic signing in the UK conforms broadly to European norms, though a number of signs are unique to Britain and direction signs omit European route numbers. The system currently in use was developed in the late 1950's and early 1960's by the Anderson Committee, which established the motorway signing system, and by the Worboys Committee, which reformed signing for existing all-purpose roads. Older ("pre-Worboys") signs belong to a different system which developed incrementally after 1904, when the Local Government Board first published a circular on traffic signing. The standards governing this system remained of an advisory nature until 1933 when regulations for traffic signs were published under powers created by the Road Traffic Act 1930.

The document governing traffic signing in Britain, comparable to the MUTCD in the United States, is the Traffic Signs Regulations and General Directions (TSRGD). The current signing system was introduced on 1 January 1965 by TSRGD 1964. Britain remains the only European Union member nation to use non-metric (imperial) measurements for distance and speed, although metric authorized-mass signs were prescribed in TSRGD 1981 and there is now a dual-unit (imperial first) option for clearance signing. TSRGD 1994 prescribed a system of white-on-brown direction signs for tourist attractions and also promulgated the Guildford Rules (see below). TSRGD 2002 contains the current standards and includes a sophisticated system of black-on-yellow direction signs for roadworks.

Three separate color schemes exist for Worboys direction signs and are based on a classification of roads for signing purposes. A road may be a motorway (white on blue), a primary route (white on dark green with yellow route numbers), or a non-primary route (black on white). Most trunk roads, which carry most of the automobile traffic and are owned by central government, and some local authority principal routes are signed as primary routes. A sophisticated system, called the Guildford Rules, is used to put directional information pertaining to routes of different class on patches colored appropriately for those classes on direction signs which have the overall background color appropriate to the roads where they are located. Brown patches, for tourist destinations, can also be added to primary and non-primary route direction signs; however, the Guildford Rules do not apply to roadworks direction signs. This patching system was developed in the mid-1980's as part of an effort to eliminate sign clutter and receives its name from the town of Guildford, Surrey, where the experimental signs were placed.

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Warning sign

The direction sign shown above is located near Bristol in England. It is patched according to the Guildford Rules. It gives directions to (Bristol) Parkway railway station (red British Rail symbol), motorways (blue-background patches), and towns reached via non-primary A-roads. Red-edged patches and red-bordered signs are used for military establishments (the Ministry of Defence at Abbey Wood in this example). Destinations which are reached indirectly have the corresponding road number in brackets (); for instance, this sign says that Filton is reached by following the A4174 ring road to the A38, and then turning onto the A38 for Filton.

Multiple typefaces are specified for current British road signs. The Transport alphabets, Transport Medium (for light text on dark backgrounds) and Transport Heavy (for dark text on light backgrounds), are mixed-case and are used for all legend on fixed permanent signs except route numbers on motorway signs. Two other typefaces, Motorway Permanent (light on dark) and Motorway Temporary (dark on light), are used for route numbers on motorway signs; these have elongated letters and are designed to add emphasis to route numbers on motorways. Transport Medium and Motorway Permanent were developed for the Anderson committee and appeared on the first motorway signs; the other two alphabets are similar but have additional stroke width in the letters to compensate for light backgrounds.

Bilingual signs are used in Wales. Welsh highway authorities choose whether they are "English-priority" or "Welsh-priority" and the language having priority in the highway authority's area appears first on signs. Most of south Wales is English-priority while north Wales is Welsh-priority. Bilingual signs were permitted by special authorization after 1965 and in 1972 the Bowen committee recommended that they should be provided systematically throughout Wales. Bilingual signing in Wales and elsewhere has caused traffic engineers to inquire into the safety ramifications of providing sign legend in multiple languages. As a result some countries have opted to limit bilingual signing to dual-name signs near places of cultural importance (e.g. New Zealand), or to use it only in narrowly circumscribed areas such as near borders or in designated language zones (e.g. the NAFTA countries).

Central and South America

Road signs in Central and South America vary from country to country. For the most part, conventions in signage tend to resemble North American signage conventions more so than European and Asian conventions. For example, warning signs are typically diamond shaped and yellow rather than triangular and white. Some variations include the "No Parking" sign, which uses a letter 'E' instead of 'P' (the Spanish and Portuguese word for 'Parking' is 'Estacionar'). Notable exceptions include speed limit signs, which follow the European conventions.

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Traffic signs in simplified Chinese and partly in English on Chinese expressways.


People's Republic of China

Mainland China uses simplified Chinese characters for its traffic signs. It is gradually moving toward internationally-accepted signs; it abandoned, for example, a localised version of the "no parking sign" (with a Hanzi character) and used the blue-red cross sign as of the late 1990s.

In larger cities and on expressways of China, both English and Chinese are used.

Hong Kong Special Administrative Region

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Traffic signs in Hong Kong.

Although the mainland uses simplified Chinese characters, traditional Chinese characters are still used in Hong Kong (as the policy of "one country, two systems" allows Hong Kong to maintain most affairs, including road traffic regulations, the way they were prior to the handover).

Most, if not all, of Hong Kong's signs are bilingual, as English and Chinese are considered official languages. English often appears on top of text in traditional Chinese.



See also: Street sign theft

External links

es:Seales de trfico fr:panneau de signalisation routire ja:道路標識 nl:Verkeersbord sv:Vgmrken zh:道路交通標誌 pl:znak drogowy


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