Theory

The learner driver's guide to deciphering road signs

6 min read • Oct 26, 2018
road signs

Price comparison website, Confused.com, approached us with an article designed to help learner drivers make sense of road signs. Using the formula of shapes, colours and pictures, working out what each road sign means doesn’t have to be as complicated as it seems.

The theory test

Before you can even consider taking your driving test, you need to prove your knowledge of the road on the multiple choice theory test. It might seem like a walk in the park, but the fact is that pass rates for the theory test have fallen by 15% in the past three years.

Use this guide, along with our videos to help you through your theory test.

According to The Driving Standards Agency, learner drivers are struggling most with memorising road and traffic signs, resulting in the highest proportion of incorrect answers since 2011. It’s no surprise, then, that 30% of drivers blame confusing road signs for causing road accidents, resulting in a hefty insurance claim, which in turn causes car insurance premiums to go up.

With that in mind, is there an easier way to revise for this part of the test? How about learning to decipher road signs rather than memorising them? Once you learn to spot the pieces that make up a traffic sign, you’ll be able to put the themes together and understand almost any road sign you come across.

Start with the shapes

The first thing you’ll notice about any road sign is its shape, and this will give you your first piece of information. The most common road sign shapes are circles, triangles and rectangles.

  • Circular signs are used to give orders; usually something that you must or must not do.
  • Triangular signs warn drivers about upcoming hazards or a change in the traffic flow.
  • Rectangular signs give you some kind of information about what’s ahead. This could be an upcoming junction, a tourist attraction, services or diverted traffic.

The most common exception to this rule is the stop sign, which is an octagon. This is deliberately different so you’ll recognise it immediately, and has the same shape in most parts of the world. So if you’re driving on the Continent, you don’t need to know what arrêt means to know that you have to stop.

Move onto the colours

After shapes, your next clue comes in with the colour of the sign. There are five colours that are usually used in standard road signs:

  • Red signs offer a warning of some kind, similar to the warning a triangular sign gives.
  • Blue signs give you some kind of instruction, whether it’s to do with changing your speed or making you choose a junction on a motorway.
  • Green signs are to give directions and are there purely for information.
  • White signs are usually attached to other signs to give further clarification.
  • Brown signs are solely used for tourist information. Want to know where the local zoo or Roman fort is? Keep an eye out for the brown signs.

As with shapes, there are exceptions to these common colours. The most common exception is yellow, which is used in all signs that divert traffic. Again, it’s used to make itself more noticeable, which comes in handy when night time traffic needs to be diverted.

Power in the pictures

As Roy Walker used to say on the original series of Catchphrase, “just say what you see”. While there are likely to be some symbols used that will bamboozle you, most of the pictures used in road signs are fairly straightforward to figure out.

  • People: Symbols depicting people usually indicate some kind of pedestrian nearby (children, the elderly, horse riders etc.)

  • Numbers: Symbols with numbers on their own are usually to do with speed, either to tell you the speed limit or to impose a minimum speed on that road. Numbers that appear alongside other symbols are usually used for clarification like junction numbers or the maximum height of a vehicle.

  • Arrows: Symbols with arrows tend to refer to traffic and how it should flow e.g. whether oncoming traffic has priority, or that you cannot make a U-turn.

You will come across some pictures that make no logical sense, for example the diagonal slash to indicate that the national speed limit applies. In these cases, this is where being familiar with certain road signs comes in handy.

Put it all together

It’s as simple as that. You’ve got a shape, a colour and a symbol to tell you what the sign is about. Just put everything together to work out what it means. A red sign (warning), circular in shape (orders) with the number 30 (speed) = Do not exceed 30mph.

A red triangle (double warning) with a picture of a cow = Warning: cattle may cross the road.

A rectangular sign (information) blue in colour (instructions) with a symbol of a bicycle = Recommended route for pedal cycles.

Of course there’ll be exceptions to all of these tricks, but for the most part you should be able to spot and work out what a road sign means. The best thing to do is to have your driving instructor (or whoever is supervising you) to test your knowledge of road signs as you encounter them on the road. This will help you to decipher road signs, meaning that when it comes to your theory test you’ll pass with flying colours!

Image via Eamon curry.

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