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Who Invented Road Signs?

By: Kevin Watson MSc - Updated: 18 Aug 2012 | comments*Discuss
 
Who Invented Road Signs?

Road signs regulate traffic flow and give directions. Without them, roads would be chaotic and dangerous. But who invented road signs in the first place? And were they simply a response to the appearance of cars on the world’s roads?

The First Road Signs

There is a lot of guesswork about the origin of road signs. Some commentators say that the first humans marked paths through woods and across open land with small piles of stones. This seems logical, especially if the stones helped a hunter return home.

What is more certain is that the Romans used a form of road signs. These were blocks of stone placed at regular intervals.

The stones were not guides to the Roman road network, however. On some of the stones, the Romans chiselled the road name and the distance to a destination. On others, they wrote the name of the current emperor and nothing more.

UK

For many centuries, as far as historians can tell, UK roads had names but not signs. The names were in popular use and came from destinations outside major cities and towns. A road that led from a city to a coastal town, for example, would have the name of the town.

The first signs to appear on roads were milestones. These became common in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries along the 30,000 miles of toll roads.

Cycling

A system of road signs did not begin in the UK until the 1880s. It was not motorists that prompted this development, though. It was cyclists.

The National Cyclists’ Union, the Cyclists’ Touring Club and the Scottish Cyclists’ Union began installing danger signs on roads. These signs warned cyclists of hazards that lay ahead such as sharp bends.

The signs proved successful. In 1888, the UK government gave responsibility for roads to county councils. With this responsibility came a duty to install direction signs and mileposts.

Motoring Organisations

Once cars arrived on roads, the Royal Scottish Automobile Club and the Automobile Association began erecting warning and distance signs. The motoring organisations designed these signs as they saw fit. They also placed them wherever they wished.

In 1903, the government passed the Motor Act. This created four national road signs. These were:

  • A red warning triangle
  • A white speed limit ring
  • A diamond-shaped notice for information such as height restriction
  • A red prohibition disc

Supplementary plates below the signs gave further information.

Regulations

The 1903 Act did not lay down specifications for these road signs. It gave guidance only.

This situation changed with the Road Traffic Act of 1930 and further regulations in 1933. The result was the handbook known as the Road Traffic Acts and Regulations. This first appeared in 1934.

The handbook contained full details of road signs. These signs were clearer than those that had gone before. They remained in use for 30 years.

In 1958, a government group called the Anderson Committee added further signs to the handbook. They were for the growing motorway network.

From 1st January 1965, another government group, the Worboys Committee, produced the Traffic Signs Regulations and General Directions. This handbook set the modern standard for UK road signs.

Finally, in the mid-1980s, the government introduced a colour-coded system for all road signs. The colours applied to different types of route. Motorway information signs, for example, had blue backgrounds with white lettering.

Development

So who invented road signs? The answer is that road signs developed over many years. They are the result of efforts by road-user representatives and government committees to create an easily understood road system.

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