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Navigating Britain's Road Signage

The Highway Code sets out safety information and mandatory rules for road users in England, Scotland and Wales, including a comprehensive section on traffic signs. It was first published in 1931, and most recently updated in 2022.

13 October 2023
Read time: 5m 41s

Britain's road network is an intricate web of highways, byways, and country lanes. Navigating this network is made possible through a well-established system of road signs, meticulously detailed in the Highway Code. In this blog, we will delve into the world of British road signage, exploring the rules and principles outlined in the Highway Code that help drivers, cyclists, pedestrians and other road users safely traverse the diverse terrain of the UK.

The Highway Code: A Pillar of Road Safety

The Highway Code is more than just a document; it's a cornerstone of road safety in the UK. Its primary purpose is to promote road safety by providing a standard for all road users. This includes motorists, cyclists, and pedestrians, emphasising the importance of understanding and obeying the road signs that guide them.

As the popularity of cars rose, there came a pressing need for standardised rules to enhance road safety. The Highway Code made its debut in 1931 as a simple booklet containing a concise set of rules primarily targeting drivers of motor vehicles. 

As the decades passed, the Highway Code underwent several revisions to adapt to the changing transportation landscape. The 1968 edition was particularly significant, as it introduced the now-familiar concept of road signs and their meanings. Nowadays, it covers a wide array of topics, including the use of mobile phones while driving and the importance of environmental consciousness on the road. 

Guiding the Way: Route Signage

Most of Britain's road signage in use today was developed in the 1950s and 1960s. The Anderson Committee (1957) established the motorway signing system. The Worboys Committee (1963) reviewed and standardised national signage. And later, the Guildford Rules (1980s) introduced colour categorisation.

Shape Almost all road signs in Britain have rounded corners, and this isn't purely a design choice. Rounded corners prevent damage and injury to vehicles and people, and prevent corrosion. 

Colour In its national review of road signage, the Worboys Committee recommended that 'route signs' be colour-coded. This recommendation was later expanded by the Guildford Rules. 

Types of Route Signs


Motorway sign
White text on solid blue background with a white borderMotorways
Primary route
White text on a solid green background with a white border and yellow route numbersPrimary routes
Non-Primary Route sign

Black text on a solid white background with a black border

Non-primary routes
Tourist Attraction sign
White text on a solid brown background with a white borderTourist attractions
MoD Road sign
Black text on a solid white background with a red borderMoD sites
Diversion sign
Black text on a solid yellow background with a black border with either a solid circle or triangle, or hollow square or diamondDiversion routes

Regulatory Signs: The Law of the Road

Usually circular with a red border or blue fill, these signs warn of a potential hazard, obstacle or condition requiring special attention ahead. Failing to obey these signs could result in legal consequences if caught. 

Circular red bordered signs are prohibitive (eg. no entry, towed caravans prohibited, no U-turns etc).

Circular or rectangular blue filled signs mostly give a positive but mandatory instruction (eg. vehicle traffic must turn left, one way traffic only etc).


'STOP' Sign
The iconic and internationally recognised 'STOP' sign is one of two regulatory sign that doesn't use a circle shape. The octagonal shape is thought to convey more authority and urgency.

Give Way sign
Give Way sign
The other regulatory sign that doesn't use a circle shape is the Give Way sign, opting instead for an inverted triangle. This is to distinguish it from other triangular signs

Circular red bordered signs
All vehicles prohibited sign
Motor Vehicles Prohibited sign
No Stopping/Parking Sign
All Vehicles ProhibitedMotor Vehicles Prohibited Except BusesNo Waiting or Parking
No Overtaking sign
Height Restriction sign
No OvertakingHeight Restriction (metric and imperial)
Blue Fill signs
Turn left sign
Roundabout sign
One Way sign
Vehicles Must Turn LeftMini-RoundaboutOne-Way Traffic

Warning Signs: Anticipate the Unexpected

Warning signs are designed to alert road users to potential hazards or conditions ahead. They are usually triangular with a red border. Proper attention to warning signs is crucial to avoiding accidents and ensuring the safety of all road users.

Common Examples
Traffic Lights Ahead sign
Steep Descent
Traffic Queues Likely Ahead
Traffic Signals AheadSteep Descent Traffic Queues Likely Ahead
Unusual Warning Signs
Slow-moving military vehicles
Migratory toad crossing
Area infected by animal disease
Slow-Moving Military Vehicles AheadMigratory Toad CrossingArea Infected by Animal Disease

Information Signs: Knowledge is Power

Information signs provide valuable information about services, facilities, and destinations. This category covers several types of signs from bus & cycle zones and parking restrictions to tourist attractions and general information. Understanding information signs can enhance the overall road experience and help you plan your route effectively.

General Information Signs
Priority Sign
No Through Road
Passing place sign
Traffic has priority over oncoming vehiclesNo through roadPassing place on narrow road
Tourist Information Signs
Campsite ahead sign
Regional tourist info sign
Motorway tourist sign
Campsite aheadPlace of interest recognised by regional tourist boardMotorway junction ahead leading to town containing several attractions
Parking Restriction Signs
Parking restriction hours sign
Parking sign
Parking on verge sign
Waiting or parking prohibited during these hoursParking place 

Vehicles may be parked partially on verge or footway

Bus & Cycle Zones
Cycle & Pedestrian shared space sign
With-flow cycle lane ahead sign
Trams and buses only
Shared path for pedestrians and cyclistsCycle lane ahead

Tram and bus lane only

Motorway Signs: Your Journey at a Glance

Often large with a bold typeface, blue motorway signs need to be read at high speeds. These signs serve multiple purposes, including confirming the route, providing directions to junctions and destinations, managing traffic lanes and speed limits through variable message signs, and guiding drivers to the appropriate exits. They are either placed on the roadside or on the overhead gantry. Variable-message signs are electronic, changeable signs which can be updated instantly depending on variable events like weather, congestion or road traffic accidents. 

Static Motorway Signs
Start of motorway sign
Additional traffic lane sign
Services approach sign
Start of motorway incl national speed limitAdditional traffic lane joining from leftApproach sign for motorway services 
Variable-Message Signs
Variable Fog sign
Variable Speed sign
Variable Lane Closed sign
Risk of fog aheadTemporary speed limitLane below closed 

Other Signs

Level Crossing Signs
Level crossing with gates Sign
Warning of light signals at level crossing sign
Overhead electrified lines sign
Level crossing with gate or barrierWarning of light signals at level crossingElectrified overhead cables
Telephone at crossing sign
Crossbuck sign
Telephone at crossingCrossbuck - level crossing without gate or barrier
Temporary Signs
Roadworks sign
Lanes bend ahead sign
Police accident ahead sign
Road works aheadLanes bend aheadPolice accident ahead
Multilingual Signs

Multilingual signs do exist in the UK. Signs in French and German reminding drivers to keep left appear near international ports such as Dover. In Wales, legislation dictates that all signs must be in Welsh first with an English translation below. In Scotland, Gaelic is used on some signs with an English translation. 

Multilingual sign
Welsh sign
Scottish sign

Multilingual sign near Port of Dover

Cymraeg sign in WalesGaelic sign in Scotland

Test Yourself

Conveying vital information, regulations, and warnings, they help drivers make informed decisions, anticipate hazards, and ensure compliance with traffic laws. Understanding these signs is a fundamental aspect of responsible driving and contributes to the overall safety and well-being of all road users.

Question 1
End of Dual Carriageway sign
What does this sign indicate?
End of Dual Carriageway sign
End of dual carriageway ahead
Question 2
Try your brakes sign
When might you see this sign?
Try your brakes sign
This sign is placed after a ford or before descending a steep hill.
Question 3
Escape lane sign
What is an escape lane?
Escape lane sign
An escape lane is an emergency traffic device that enables vehicles having braking problems to stop safely. Often filled with sand or gravel on a slight uphill spur of road, they are found on motorways and steep hills in some places in the UK and across the Continent. 

In Conclusion

British road signage is a visual language, rich in information and governed by the Highway Code. As road users, it's our duty to comprehend and follow these signs diligently. They are not merely symbols on the roadside; they are guardians of safety, ensuring that our journeys are safe and secure.