The system currently in use was developed in the late 1950s and the early 1960s by the Anderson Committee, which established the motorway signing system, and by the Worboys Committee, which reformed signing for existing all-purpose roads. Older 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.
UK roadsigns do, or should, follow an extremely complex and detailed set of guidelines:
In 1957 Colin Anderson, the chairman of the P&O Line shipping company, was appointed chairman of a government committee to design signs for the new motorway network. A system was needed that could be easily read at high speed. Two graphic designers were appointed, Jock Kinneir and his assistant, and later business partner, Margaret Calvert to design the system of signage. The new signs were first used on the Preston By-pass in 1958.
Another graphic designer, Herbert Spencer, published two articles in 1961 that illustrated the shortcomings of all other British road signs. T. G. Usborne, of the Ministry of Transport, who had been in charge of the Anderson Committee, formed the Worboys Committee in 1963 to review signage on all British roads. Kinneir and Calvert were again commissioned as the designers for the new system. The result was a document that defined traffic signing in Britain: Traffic Signs Regulations and General Directions (TSRGD). It was first introduced on 1 January 1965 but has been updated since. It is comparable with the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices in the United States.
Britain is the only European Union member nation to use imperial, rather than metric measurements for distance and speed. However, vehicle weight limits are signed only in metric (TSRGD 1981), and metric units may optionally be used in addition to imperial ones for height, width and length restrictions.
TSRGD 1994 prescribed a system of white-on-brown direction signs for tourist attractions and also introduced the Guildford Rules (see below). TSRGD 2002 contains the current standards and includes a sophisticated system of black-on-yellow direction signs for roadworks.
Almost all signs have rounded corners. This is partly for aesthetic reasons, but also because it is safer for anyone coming into contact with a sign and it makes it more durable.
A colour-coding system is used to indicate information pertaining to different categories of route. The system was developed in the mid-1980s as part of an effort to eliminate sign clutter, and takes its name from the town of Guildford, Surrey, where experimental versions of this signing system were tested. However, with the arrival of a new generation of traffic signing specialists, the term Guildford Rules is now infrequently used.
On Advance Direction Signs the background colour indicates the category of route on which it is located. On all directional signs, destination names are placed on the colour appropriate to the category of route used from that junction. A panel of one colour on a different colour of background therefore indicates a change of route status. A smaller area of colour, called a patch, surrounds a bracketed route number (but not its associated destination) to indicate a higher status route that is joined some distance away. A patch may only be coloured blue or green.
Other colours, for example brown for tourist attractions, indicate the type of destination or category of road user, rather than route status. Colour coding is not used on temporary directional signs at roadworks, which are always yellow.
The direction sign shown at the top right of this page is located near Bristol. 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 panels 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, the sign indicates that Filton is reached by following the A4174 ring road to the A38 and then turning on to the A38 for Filton.
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. The Motorway typeface has a limited character set consisting of just numbers and a few letters and symbols needed to show route numbers.
These typefaces are the only ones permitted on road signs in the UK. Although signs containing other typefaces do appear occasionally in some places, they are explicitly forbidden in Government guidelines, and are technically illegal.
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 west and North Wales is Welsh-priority. Bilingual signs were permitted by special authorisation 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 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) countries). A small number of these signs exist in the UK on major roads that leave major ports (such as Dover). They detail in English and French, standard speed limits and reminders to drive on the left.
In the Scottish Highlands, road signs are often found with the Scottish Gaelic given in green, in addition to the English in black. This seems to be part of the Gaelic language revival encouraged by many, including the Bòrd na Gàidhlig; see Gaelic road signs in Scotland.
The term "directional sign" covers both Advance Direction Signs (ADS), placed on the approach to a junction, and Direction Signs (DS) at the junction itself, showing where to turn. A DS usually has a chevron (pointed) end, and this type is also referred to as a flag-type sign. However, a DS may also be rectangular with an arrow when it is necessary to indicate a direction other than left or right.
An Advance Direction Sign may be one of four types:
An ADS generally has blue, green or white as its background colour to indicate the status of road (motorway, primary or non-primary) on which it is placed. Except on the main carriageway of a motorway, coloured panels are used to indicate routes from the junction being signed that have a different status. A DS should always be a single colour indicating the status of the road to be joined, although there are a few rare exceptions to this rule.
Destinations are written in mixed case white Transport Medium alphabet for green and blue backgrounds, and in black Transport Heavy alphabet for white backgrounds. Route numbers are coloured yellow when placed directly on a green background. Some signs show the closest destination on the route first (i.e., on top), whilst others show the most distant settlement first. On a roundabout DS, the route locations are usually listed with the closest destination at the bottom and the furthest away at the top when going straight ahead, and likewise going left and right.
All types of ADS (but not DS) may optionally have the junction name at the top of the sign in capital letters in a separate panel.
A route confirmatory sign is placed either after a junction where distances were not shown on the ADS or DS or is placed on an overhead information sign but does not show distances to the destinations along that route.
The importance of a warning sign is emphasised by the red border drawn around it and the mostly triangular shape.
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