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How to make sense of road signs

While it’s clear what some road signs mean, the meaning of others is sometimes a lot less obvious.

A red route sign in the UK

So, whether you’re learning to drive or have had your licence for some time, it’s useful to know that there’s a system to what road sign shapes mean.

 

Different shapes have different meanings

The different shapes let you know what sort of sign you’re looking at. This means that you can get a feel for the general message the sign is trying to convey, even if you don’t understand the specifics.

So even if you can’t work out what animal is pictured on a sign, you’ll know that because it’s in a red triangle you’re being warned to look out for it.

Road signs generally come in one of three shapes. The shape of the sign lets you know what sort of information is going to be on it.

  • Circular road signs – traffic signs that give orders are generally circular in shape. This sometimes comes up on the driving theory test. A red border on the sign indicates that you’re not allowed to do something, such as ‘no turning right’. Blue circular signs generally give an instruction, such as telling you that you have to turn left ahead.
  • Triangular road signs – these are warning signs. They usually have a red border around whatever you are being told to look out for, such as a sharp bend or that unidentifiable animal.
  • Rectangular road signs – signs in this shape give information or directions. Blue rectangles give information, except on motorways where blue is used for direction signs. Direction signs on primary routes are green rectangles, while those on minor roads are white. White rectangular signs are also used to give more information with warning signs, such as the distance to give way signs.

 

Signs giving orders

A lot of the time it’s fairly straightforward what the circular order sign is telling you. Speed limit signs are pretty self-explanatory, for instance.

But it gets more complicated when what’s on the sign is more abstract. The two signs with red borders, blue backgrounds and red lines on them are easy to confuse. But not knowing what they are could leave you out of pocket.

No waiting sign

A no waiting sign

The no waiting sign is a blue sign with a red stripe and a red border.

This sign means you’re allowed to stop to drop off or pick up passengers but you can’t stay for any longer. In some instances, a no waiting sign might be accompanied by single yellow lines.

This usually means the restriction is only in force at certain times of day or on certain days. More details should be shown on nearby rectangular signs.

If the no waiting sign is accompanied by double yellow lines, the restriction is permanently in force.

Urban clearway sign

An urban clearway sign

This usually designates a busy urban road where vehicles aren’t allowed to wait. Typically, the restriction only applies at certain times of day, usually during rush hour.

No stopping sign

A no stopping sign

Not to be confused with the no waiting sign, the no stopping sign is a red cross on a blue background with the usual red border.

This applies on certain busy routes: you’re not even allowed to stop to set down or pick up passengers. As with the no waiting sign, this restriction might only be in force at certain times.

Red route sign

A red route sign

These can be found on busy routes, especially in London. Other places that have them include Leeds, Luton, and parts of the West Midlands.

Double red lines mean no stopping at any time, while you’re allowed to stop during certain times on single red lines. The times should be signposted.

National speed limit applies sign

National Speed Limit sign

This departs from the red and blue colour scheme. It has a white background and a diagonal black line across it. This means that the national speed limit applies. For cars, the national speed limit is 60 mph on single carriageways, while for dual carriageways it’s 70 mph.

 

Warning signs

Warning signs are generally red triangles. They let you know of possible hazards. Lots of different hazards have their own signs, some of which you’ll see frequently, others not so much.

T-junction sign

A t-junction sign

Looking less like a T than the no through road sign, the broad arrow shows who has priority at the junction.

Dual carriageway ends ahead sign

Dual carriageway ends sign

This sign indicates that the two roads that have been separated by a central reservation are about to join up. The dual part refers to the fact that there are two separate roads and not to the number of lanes in each direction.

Ford sign

A ford sign

There’s no attempt at a picture here, just the word warning you that the road will likely be covered with water. Fords can be surprisingly deep, so proceed with caution. You don’t want to have to claim on your car insurance because you misjudged how much water there was.

Steep hill sign

A steep sign

The gradient is given as a percentage, but generally speaking the higher the number, the steeper the hill. The direction of the text and the hill it’s resting on tell you whether the road is going to be steep going uphill or downhill.

 

Direction signs

Direction signs are mostly rectangular. Different categories of road usually have different colour direction signs. Then there are signs pointing to all sorts of things you might need to know the way to.

Motorway direction signs have blue backgrounds.

A motorway sign in the UK

Signs on primary routes have green backgrounds.

Primary route sign

Signs on non-primary and local routes have white backgrounds with black borders.

A non-primary route in the UK

Signs giving local directions can have various background colours.

 

Information signs

Signs that give information are rectangular. The background colour should generally be blue or white, but other colours can sometimes be used.

No through road sign

No through road sign

Not to be confused with the T-junction sign, the no through road sign has a blue background with a red horizontal bar above a white vertical bar. These signs are often seen in residential areas.

Bus lane sign

Bus lane sign

These have the standard blue background and white text, but you need to pay close attention to what’s allowed in the bus lane and when. Some bus lanes operate 24/7, while others don’t. Some might let taxis, motorbikes, cycles and even lorries in them. For more information, check out our guide on bus lanes.

Single track road with passing places sign

Single track road with passing places

This standard blue and white sign is one that you might first encounter courtesy of your satnav, especially if you learn to drive in a city and don’t venture much into the countryside.

It warns that if you decide to go down the track you should be prepared to meet oncoming vehicles. If this happens, one of you might have to pull over into a passing place, possibly in reverse.

If you’re a learner driver, think of it as a way of practising your manoeuvring.

Priority over traffic coming the other way sign

Priority over oncoming traffic sign

Usually found on narrow roads or where there are traffic calming measures, this is a blue rectangular sign with two arrows, one white and one red. The big, white arrow pointing the direction you’re going tells you that you have priority.

 

Unusually-shaped signs

Sometimes you can tell what a sign is going to say just by its shape. Two signs in particular fall into this category.

Stop sign

A stop sign

A stop sign is octagonal with white writing on a red background. It indicates that you must come to a complete stop at the junction.

As it’s the only sign that’s this shape you should still be able to tell what it is even if it’s dirty or covered in snow. This sign in English is a common design in many countries worldwide.

Give way sign

Give way sign

The give way sign is the only one that’s an upside-down triangle. It shows that traffic already on the road you want to join has priority and you’ll need to wait for a safe gap to pull out.

 

Other road sign colours

Other colours can also be found on road signs:

  • Yellow signs – diversion routes and roadworks information can be found on signs with yellow backgrounds and black writing. Some signs, such as no waiting and no stopping signs might also be superimposed on to a yellow background.
  • Red signs – signs with red backgrounds and white writing also tend to denote temporary situations. Common examples are ones showing routes for works traffic or those saying ‘when red light shows wait here’.
  • Brown signs – signs with brown backgrounds and white writing denote tourist attractions such as castles, museums and picnic areas.
  • Green signs with yellow border – the sign for a ring road is a white R on a green background with a yellow border.

If you’re learning to drive and need to know the road signs for your driving test or just want to refresh your memory, you’ll find them in the Highway Code