Know Your Traffic Signs

Know your traffic signs

Road traffic signage in Great Britain, including information on the signing system, regulatory signs, speed limit signs and all other signs.

Why know your traffic signs?

Traffic signs play a vital role in directing, informing and controlling road users’ behaviour in an effort to make the roads as safe as possible for everyone. This makes a knowledge of traffic signs essential. Not just for new drivers or riders needing to pass their theory test, but for all road users, including experienced professional drivers.

This book aims to illustrate and explain the most common traffic signs that the road user is likely to encounter and is an accompaniment to The Highway Code.

Keeping up to date

We live in times of change. Society, technology and the economy all play their part in changing the way we travel. New traffic signs conveying new messages and in new formats are introduced from time to time, so all drivers and riders need to keep up to date or run the risk of failing to understand or comply with recently introduced signs.

A few examples of events that called for new signs include:

  • Britain’s first motorway
  • air quality zones
  • the reintroduction of trams
  • advance stop lines
  • vehicle-activated signs
  • road-charging schemes.

Having experience is all very well, but it’s not enough if your knowledge is out of date.

Responsibility for traffic signs

Responsibility for the road network in the UK is split among:

  • National Highways in England
  • the Welsh Government in Wales
  • the Scottish Government in Scotland
  • the Department for Infrastructure in Northern Ireland
  • local or regional highway authorities.

The central administrations above are responsible for the UK’s strategic road network. Strategic roads are the highways that link cities, areas of population, ports and airports. Most motorways and some ‘A’ roads are strategic roads.

Local or regional highway authorities are responsible for local roads, and this includes a few motorways, all other ‘A’ roads and all other public roads. While responsibility for placing, erecting and maintaining traffic signs is split among these bodies, it is important that signs are consistent both in appearance and in the way they are used.

To ensure that the UK has a uniform traffic signing system, signs must conform to the designs prescribed in the Traffic Signs Regulations and General Directions 2016 (as amended) (TSRGD) or the equivalent in the devolved administrations, although some signs may have been specially authorised by the Secretary of State or similar in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Traffic signs remain the most effective method of communicating to all road users what they need to know to complete their journey safely, efficiently and within the law.

The design of traffic signs and road markings, and their meanings and permitted variants, are generally similar but can vary in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. You should refer also to the information published in those jurisdictions.

The information in this book should not be taken as a definitive statement of the legislation. In the event of a disparity, TSRGD always takes precedence.

A brief history of traffic signs

It was probably the Romans who first used ‘traffic signs’ in Britain. They marked off road distances at 1,000 paces (about one mile) with stones called ‘milliaries’.

Most early signposts were erected by private individuals at their own expense. A law passed in 1697 allowed magistrates to direct that inscribed stones or posts be erected at junctions between highways, but it was not until after the General Turnpike Act 1773 that these ‘guide posts’ or ‘fingerposts’ became more common.

During the second half of the nineteenth century, bicycles became more popular. Steep hills and sharp bends were very dangerous for early cyclists, and ‘danger’ and ‘caution’ signs were erected at the top of steep hills. Signs showing a skull and crossbones were erected at the most dangerous places. Local authorities and cycling organisations installed an estimated 4,000 warning signs.

The year 1896 heralded the era of the motor car, and some motoring associations took up the business of placing signs. The Motor Car Act 1903 made local authorities responsible for placing certain warning and prohibitory signs. The signs were for crossroads, steep hills and dangerous bends. ‘A’ and ‘B’ numbering of roads was introduced in 1921, and these numbers were shown on fingerpost-style signs alongside the destination and distance. Town or village name signs and warning signs for schools, level crossings and double bends were introduced at the same time.

The main task of signposting our roads during the 1920s and 1930s still fell on the motoring organisations, but in 1931 a committee chaired by Sir Henry Maybury was asked to recommend improvements to the signing then in use, and by 1933 further new signs began to appear, including ‘No entry’ and ‘Keep left’ signs and warning signs for narrow roads and bridges, low bridges, roundabouts and hospitals. Other signs followed during the 1930s, including ‘Halt at major road ahead’. These formed the basis of our traffic signing until the early 1960s.

It was not until after 1918 that white lines began to appear on British roads, and during the 1920s their use spread rapidly. In 1926, the first Ministry of Transport circular on the subject laid down general principles on the use of white lines. In the 1930s, white lines were used as ‘stop’ lines at road junctions controlled by either police or traffic lights. Reflecting road studs (often referred to as ‘cat’s eyes’) first came into use in 1934. By 1944, white lines were also being used to indicate traffic lanes and define the boundary of the main carriageway at entrances to side roads and lay-bys, and in conjunction with ‘halt’ signs. In 1959, regulations came into effect to control overtaking by the use of double white lines.

It was realised that the old system of signing would not be adequate for motorways, and the Anderson Committee was set up in 1958 to consider new designs. It recommended much larger signs, with blue backgrounds. Then, in 1961, the Worboys Committee began to review the complete system of traffic signing. It concluded that the UK should adopt the main principles of the European system, with the message expressed as a symbol within a red triangle (for warning signs) or a red circle (for prohibitions). Work began on the conversion of British signs in 1965, and this is still the basic system in use today.

Later developments include the use of yellow box markings at busy road junctions, special signs and road markings at pedestrian crossings, mini-roundabouts and bus lanes. Regulations published in 1994 included new regulatory and warning signs, and simplified the yellow line system of waiting restrictions that was originally introduced in the 1950s. Further regulations have been published in the period since.

More use is being made of new technology to provide better information to road users on hazards, delays, diversions and traffic control. The future will undoubtedly see more developments in traffic signing to keep pace with the changing traffic demands on our roads.