Thursday, 25 September 2008

Road Signs - Hit or Miss?

Interesting news story on BBC News, on What makes a good road sign? here

What makes a good road sign?

The speed camera sign is instantly recognisable but the "no stopping" sign isn't. As a review of British road signs is launched, what makes some good and others bad?

Many road signs are bizarre when thought about logically. Just what is one meant to do if there is a danger of falling rocks?

And if the road is slippery, will your car tyres really cross like the alarming skid marks seen on the sign?

But even if some symbols do not stand up to scrutiny, they convey a message that is quickly recognised.

Or at least, that's the hope. Out of 500 drivers surveyed last year, none was able to correctly identify 12 road signs and only one sign - the speed camera - was known to them all.

A review of signs has been launched by the Department for Transport, looking at ways to reduce street clutter and introduce more technology. So what makes a good sign?

"The most important thing is that it works," says Michael Wolff, chairmen of The Sign Design Society.

"The design of a sign must be got down to the simplest possible level," he says.

"The fundamental words in sign design are clarity, consistency and simplicity."

Not only do modern drivers travel faster than before, they are also listening to the radio, chatting on their hands-free phone and trying to subdue rowdy children in the back. Distractions are everywhere.

With so much competition for a driver's attention, a good sign has its work cut out. It must be clear and simple so that it can be seen, read and understood in an instant.

The red no-entry sign is one that, even without words or pictures, conveys its message.

But others don't. Many drivers are unable to recognise the "no stopping" sign.

And former police driving instructor Chris Walker says the "give way to oncoming traffic" sign is hotly debated at driving school because it is illogical and takes too long to work out.

The symbols on signs should not be interpreted too literally - the roadworks warning is often likened to a man opening an umbrella, while some of the most recognisable signs summon memories of the pre-motoring age.
Is this offensive?

A 19th Century-style bellows camera is used, with great success, to warn of the imminent danger of racking up a speeding fine and rail enthusiasts' hearts must race at the symbol of a steam train before level crossings.

"Symbols don't have to be accurate, they are there to convey an idea and be understood," Mr Wolff says.

Some widely used signs have attracted criticism for being outdated. The image of stooped elderly people crossing a road has been branded as "insulting" by Help the Aged. It originates from a children's competition in 1981.

"Signs must be nationally recognised and clear for international visitors," says Paul Watters, head of roads policy at the AA, as there can be over one million foreign cars on the UK's roads at any one time.

Different colours provoke very different reactions in the human mind, says Dr David Cowell, who specialises in the psychology of colour. Rectangular signs are the same shape as a book and therefore give information

David Cowell
Colour psychologist

The brain is very sensitive to the level of energy in the light that passes through your eyes, with different colours of light carrying different amounts of energy.

"Blue [the colour of motorway signage] suggests harmony and relaxation," says Dr Cowell. "It is the colour of nature in relaxed form. It encourages social communication and consideration of others."

Orange and yellow "suggest a positive future", he says, the point being that the colour of signs surrounding roadworks is clearly meant to encourage frustrated drivers to think beyond the current delays.

Different shaped signs also create different psychological reactions, suggests Dr Cowell.

"A triangular sign has points and represents danger," which is why the shape is used for warning signs.

"Rectangular signs are the same shape as a book and therefore give information. Round signs are instructional. They look like the end of a pointing finger giving you an instruction."

While the fundamental design of the country's road signs has remained unchanged for almost half a century, the number of signs seems to multiplying.

Today British roads can seem crammed with symbols warning drivers of every foreseeable danger, from falling rocks to passing deer. As well as fuelling fears the streetscape is being damaged, the proliferation of signs reduces their effectiveness.

"Drivers now face a system overload," says Mr Walker. "Signs are duplicated, in some cases triplicated, leaving little time for the information to be seen and processed."

Even the most well-designed road sign will be of little use if nobody can make it out.


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