What Do Road Signs Mean?

Road Signs & What They Mean

The holidays are here which means many Americans are taking to the roads for home. If you’re one of the thousands of travelers this season, following posted signs and other traffic control devices will mean a safer trip for you and other drivers and pedestrians.

Understanding the importance of traffic signs and their meaning keeps everyone safe. The holiday season is a busy time of year for travelers, so follow the warnings posted along the roads of the United States for your safety and the well-being of others.

If you’re a new driver, make sure you understand these and other signs. Your safety and the safety of others depends on all of us knowing traffic laws and following posted traffic control devices.

We’re going to break down the basics of sign designs in color and shape. These give an easy way to identify upcoming road hazards or changing conditions. At the end of this article, we’ll show you some uncommon or confusing signs you may come across.

But, before that, let’s see the design concepts behind these signs.

Regulatory Signs

As the title suggests, regulatory road signs regulate the flow of traffic. These signs direct motorists to specific actions such as yielding to other lanes or upcoming speed changes.

These types of signs are meant to be followed at all times. Some signs, as you’ll see later, are suggestions or call attention to attractions or rest areas. These are not considered regulatory signs. Whereas things like Yield Signs, Speed Limit Signs, or Construction Signs regulate and control the flow the traffic. So, these are regulatory signs.

With that in mind, you need to know what the colors of different signs mean.

Road Sign Color Meanings

Stop Sign and Street Sign

We previously touched on how businesses use color to influence customers, but color also plays an important part in road safety. Colors quickly and easily convey vague messages to road users. The symbols assign the specific meaning, but color is usually the first thing drivers notice. While the full intent of a sign may not be immediately known, seeing the color provides drivers with initial information.

Understanding the general idea of road sign colors keeps you alert and cognizant of potentially changing road conditions.

White

White road signs have a wide variety of uses as they are primarily regulatory signs. Speed limit, lane restriction, and weight limit signs are all examples of white road signs.

Red

Red road signs are regulatory signs. They indicate prohibited actions or direct drivers towards certain actions such as stopping at an intersection or yielding to oncoming or highway traffic.

The best known type of red sign are Stop Signs. They’re bright, they’re noticeable, and they tell you what to do.

Yellow

Yellow signs issue a warning to road users. These may be the most common and numerous type of road safety sign. Warning road signs have a variety of uses and generally inform drivers of changes and disruptions to the flow of traffic or terrain such as potential wildlife or merging lanes.

Green

Green signs serve as guides. Guide signs tend to bear information such as street names, interstate on and off ramps, and distances to cities and towns.

Blue

Blue signs are not regulatory signs. However, they denote services for drivers such as gas stations, hospitals, and rest areas.

Since they aren’t regulatory, blue signs don’t control traffic in any way. They show you places to stop or other attractions, but you’re under no obligation to follow them.

Brown

Like blue signs, brown signs are not regulatory. They indicate guidance for road users towards recreational areas such as picnic areas, swimming locations, hiking trails, and many more.

Again, since brown signs aren’t regulatory, you don’t need to follow them.

Fluorescent Yellow-Green

These signs signify pedestrian crossing areas and school zones. It may be difficult to differentiate between this color and the yellow warning signs, and it is important to acknowledge the caution these signs offer for the safety of pedestrians and students.

Orange

Contrary to some beliefs, orange construction signs are not permanent. An orange sign means drivers need to know of temporary traffic control changes such as lanes closed for construction, slow traffic, and marking the beginning or end of road work zones.

Road Sign Shapes

Right Curve Ahead Sign

The shape of a traffic sign works in tandem with its color in quickly imprinting and informing of a general warning or alert. Like color, since shape is an easy visual identifier, you can quickly interpret a traffic control sign’s general meaning by looking at its shape.

Diamond ShapedDiamond Shaped Road Sign

Diamond signs mean some form of warning. They’re typically used in conjunction with the color yellow to better alert drivers.

Pentagon ShapedPentagon Shaped Sign

These signs indicate a school zone or crosswalk. Many of these signs use the fluorescent yellow/green color for consistency.

Triangle ShapedTriangle Road Sign

There are a couple meanings for triangle road signs.

  • Yield: Possibly the most common form of triangle sign, Yield signs alert drivers to slow down and yield to oncoming or ongoing traffic
  • No Passing Zone: These pennant-shaped signs inform drivers of a stretch of road where passing is not allowed and potentially hazardous such as around long turns or narrow lanes

Rectangular ShapedRectangular Shaped Sign

Rectangular vertical and horizontal signs have a variety of uses, but there are some general meanings for each.

  • Vertical: Regulate driving behaviors such as indicating speed limits or informing of lane restrictions
  • Horizontal: Typically help in guiding drivers such as indicating a sharp turn, but horizontal signs have a variety of uses

Round/Circle ShapedCircle Road Sign

Circle road signs inform drivers of an upcoming railroad crossing.

Octagon ShapedOctagon Shaped Road Sign

This may be the most easily recognizable. Octagon shaped signs are Stop signs.

Road Sign Symbols

T Intersection Sign

While a sign’s color provides preliminary information, its symbol defines it. Many symbols and phrases adorn our streets, highways, and interstates, and understanding them ensures safe travels during the season. There are many different types of roads signs and they each carry their own meaning.

Most signs bear symbols in black or other contrasting color. This makes the sign easy to see and identify from further away. The typical colors for road sign symbols are white and black. They’re easy to see and contrast with most background colors.

Uncommon Sign Meanings

Knowing the colors and shapes of the variety of signs found along America’s highways and interstates allows you to quickly understand their general ideas. However, the symbols define the specific meanings.

As a reminder before your holiday travels, here are a few confusing or less-than-common signs to bear in mind:

Images courtesy of MUTCD unless otherwise stated

Divided HighwayDivided Highway Sign

This sign often gets confused with the similar Leaving Divider sign. The Divided Highway sign signifies an upcoming physical split in the road.

You should understand why this is important. If you don’t adhere to the warning of a Divided Highway sign, you could run into the median or off the road.

Merging TrafficMerging Traffic Sign

This sign alerts drivers that an upcoming ramp merges directly into the flow of traffic.

Staying aware of your place and the places of other drivers keeps everyone safe. You need to know that an on-ramp is coming up to keep an eye out for merging cars.

Added LaneAdded Lane Sign

Contrasting with the Merging Traffic sign, an Added Lane sign informs drivers of a road or ramp adding another lane alongside and in the same direction as the current flow of traffic.

Similar to Merging Traffic signs, you need to know whether a ramp adds a new lane to the road or not. If it does, you’ll need to be aware of drivers staying in their lane. If not, you need to find a safe way to let other drivers into the flow of traffic.

Slippery When WetRoad Narrows Sign

Relatively self-explanatory, a Slippery When Wet sign warns drivers to take caution of water on the road.

If you’re travelling through states or regions prone to snow for the holidays, you need to heed the warning this sign offers. Water always alters road conditions, but certain road types, such as bridges and overpasses, can become even more hazardous than standard asphalt.

Bridge Ices Before RoadBridge Ices Before Road Sign

Another example of weather warning, a Bridge Ices Before Road sign alerts motorists to watch for ice patches on the road.

The reason bridges ice over faster than roads is due to their construction. Roads built on the ground take longer to change in temperature because only one side is exposed to the air while bridges cool faster because of the colder air both above and below the structure.

Road NarrowsRoad Narrows Sign

This sign means that the road itself narrows up ahead. Understanding this warning is important as a tighter lane space means less room for you and other drivers.

A narrowing road could mean dangerous conditions such as soft dirt to either side, a water feature such as a river, or tight and close rocky walls. Whatever the reason, you need to follow a Road Narrows sign to avoid a collision or falling off the motorway.

Two Way TrafficTwo Way Traffic

These signs demonstrate a change from one way or split roads into a two-way highway or interstate.

If you’ve been traveling on a single-lane road, these signs alert you to on-coming traffic. This is important so you understand where the new bounds of your lane are.

“X” CrossingDeer Crossing Sign

There are many kinds of crossing signs and they vary from region to region. Many signs indicate wildlife crossing areas for animals such as bears, deer, or cattle. Additionally, there are signs warning of farm equipment or recreational vehicle crossing.

Regardless of the source, you must stay aware of animal and equipment crossing signs for your safety and other bystanders.

These signs warn of potential hazards. As a driver, you should already be aware of your surroundings. But, Animal or Equipment Crossing signs reinforce that behavior. An animal could dart out in front of your vehicle, but you might be able to avoid a collision if you stay vigilant in these sections of road.

Advisory SpeedSpeed Advisory Sign

Some stretches of road indicate a suggested speed. Such markers may be found along exit ramps or lanes, upcoming turns, or other potentially hazardous sections of road.

These signs are not regulatory speed limit signs. However, they indicate and suggest the maximum safest speed given usual road conditions. While these signs aren’t absolute, it is best to heed them.

Winding RoadWinding Road Sign

This type of warning sign alerts drivers of an upcoming section of road that contains more frequent turns and curves. Advisory Speed signs may accompany these markers for added safety.

A multitude of signs line America’s highways and interstates. Understanding their meaning and heeding them ensures you, your family, and other drivers will arrive safely.

Slow Down Speed Advisory Sign

CustomSigns.com is your one-stop-shop for professional-grade signs. From safety signs to office signs to ADA compliant signs, we are the best online source for all of your signage needs.

Reference
  1. Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices

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