When are warning signs appropriate?

One of the big questions with sign design these days is that are most signs even necessary? People argue that with electronic aids that signs will be eventually rendered redundant. This is, in my view, drivel. Not everyone will be using electronic aids in the future, for a start. So, let’s review warning signs.

There was even a legal case regarding the provision of these, which I will look at in the future (but for those in the know, all I have to say now is Gorringe). Warning signs are often overused because of well meaning engineers wanting to be seen to solve a problem with a limited budget.

This is a major problem as it breeds inconsistency and also dumbs down road users. Drivers in particular should be expected to take the road as they find it, and this means that not every individual hazard warrants a sign. Compare road driving with railways; train drivers are expected to know their route virtually off by heart. They can tell you the exact location of signals, points, and when to brake for a station. Road drivers can hardly tell you where the first bend on their street is. It’s simple observation and memory but something we are happy to eschew because ‘someone else should do it’.

I am an advocate for reduced sign clutter, and removing warning signs that are not proven to be necessary. For a kick off, I don’t think warning signs in 20 mph areas are particularly necessary. Traffic speeds should be low enough that drivers are able to react to hazards without a sign telling them. The only useful signs in such areas are those warning of vulnerable road users such as children. A driver should not need telling there is a sharp bend ahead.

Another issue is of course the over-proliferation of yellow backing boards associated with warning signs. This just gives another element of overload which is ultimately likely to cause drivers to start ignoring signs entirely. For some reason many sign practitioners completely ignore the recommendation in the Traffic Signs Manual that one should simply use a larger warning sign if it needs to be visible, before considering garish and needless backing boards, instead preferring to use 600mm triangles with masses of yellow backing board. Not only is it ugly, it is poor practice; and has a safety implication that drivers will ignore a likely useful sign with a yellow backing board because they have seen plenty of useless ones with the same surround.

I would personally ask the following questions when considering the provision of a warning sign:

  1. What is the sign intended to achieve? Is it a useful warning, e.g. can a driver process the hazard without seeing the sign?
  2. Is a different engineering answer available?
  3. Is the sign likely to be a ‘knee jerk reaction’ that could open a floodgate?

If the answers to the above aren’t satisfactory then why bother? Why waste scarce funds on a pointless project purely to shut up a complaint? It isn’t appropriate at all.

The next problem beyond appropriateness is actually using the correct sign in the first place.

The left sign is the wrong one – it means pedestrians in road ahead, used where footways are discontinuous. Many will say “so what”, but subconsciously a driver knows what a school warning sign looks like (right sign), so will ignore this one because it isn’t about a school. That has a safety implication.

Duplicated signs are another problem – remove the old ones when putting up new ones! Failing to do so just clutters up the street and is poor practice.

Ultimately, it’s the old adage yet again – less is more. We need to stop putting up pointless things and focus entirely on genuine road safety measures.

4 thoughts on “When are warning signs appropriate?

  1. I’ve seen far too many mandatory signs go completely unnoticed by drivers (including, on more than one occasion, police officers) because signs are too often irrelevant, so motorists stop looking for them. The most susceptible to being inconsistent to the point of uselessness in my experience is the sharp bend, which often appears ahead of corners which are far from the sharpest on that road.

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  2. I totally agree with your sentiment, Bryn. But I’d go further and say that even children/school signs are unneeded and just ‘background clutter’ to most motorists in a built-up area. You surely expect to see children on the streets in a town.
    The point about children signs being ignored and largely irrelevant was brought home to me early in my local authority days. I received a phone call from a primary school head teacher: “Where are the warning signs for my school you promised me?” “Madam,” I replied, “they were erected 3 weeks ago”!

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    1. That’s some stunning lack of awareness by the ‘customer’! Mind you I can spot a new sign from 100 paces so I can’t pass comment.

      This morning I drove past a zebra crossing warning sign; which was placed within the controlled area and had a distance plate! I saw the crossing well before I saw the sign as it had LED halos, but clearly it ticks someone’s risk assessment somewhere despite being patently absurd. That is what we need to address, the ridiculous risk aversion from people who seem to be content at further dumbing-down behaviour on the roads without realising they’re doing it.

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  3. A few years ago a school asked the LA, where I worked, for new school warning signs. I refused on the grounds that visibility to the school was good and there were more than one good crossing facilities outside the school. You probably know what happened next. School asks to speak to my manager. School gets Councillor involved. Both of them don’t see the bigger picture and so the signs go up.

    Just like Bryn said, signs are put in by LAs because they’ve been asked to “do something about it” with no money to actually do anything meaningful. They just become a tool to mollify people.

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