The Meaning of Road Signs

Road Sign Meanings: Understanding Colors and Shapes of Road Signs

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The Meaning of Road Signs

There are several hundred federally approved road signs in use today. With that many signs it can be a little overwhelming to try and learn each individual message. Thankfully, you can understand the meaning of a road sign by simply learning about what colors, shapes, and symbols are used.

The Introduction of Symbols, Colors, and Shapes

In order to help drivers process road sign meanings faster, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) moved towards the use of symbols rather than words. Symbols are far better at conveying different safety messages, they are easier to recognize and understand, and they are fairly universal. The use of symbols is quickly becoming the standard for traffic control devices throughout the world.

The DOT also has a standard for the color and shape of particular signs. These colors and shapes are essential to understanding the meaning of road signs. They are also becoming universal. For example, if you see a red and white octagonal sign it’s safe to assume that sign means stop. This goes for most signs that follow the standards.

The color codes below are from the 2009 Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) for Streets and Highways. They are the most up-to-date revisions for the color code system currently available.

What Do Road Sign Colors Mean?

  • Black – regulation
  • Blue – road user services guidance, tourist information, and evacuation route
  • Brown – recreational and cultural interest area guidance
  • Coral – unassigned
  • Fluorescent Pink – incident management
  • Fluorescent Yellow-Green – pedestrian warning, bicycle warning, playground warning, school bus, and school warning
  • Green – indicated movements permitted, direction guidance
  • Light Blue – unassigned
  • Orange – temporary traffic control
  • Purple – lanes restricted to use only by vehicles with registered electronic toll collection (ETC) accounts
  • Red – stop or prohibition
  • White – regulation
  • Yellow – warning

The color of road signs are an important indicator of the information they present. By learning the color of the sign, you can start to understand what to expect from that sign. Think about how many times you’ve come across a yellow sign and instantly knew that it was warning you of something. That is one of the benefits you gain from learning corresponding colors.

If road sign colors provide consistency across our infrastructure, then road sign shapes further establishes this consistency. Each shape connotes a specific meaning too. When combined, the shape and color of a road sign can often alert drivers to the meaning of the sign prior to reading the contents. In some instances, the ability to make out the shape and color of a sign is more important than being able to read the sign.

What Do Road Sign Shapes Mean?

  • Octagon – exclusively used for stop signs
  • Upside Down Triangle – always means yield
  • Circle – an advanced warning that there’s a railroad nearby
  • Pennant Shape – warn drivers that this is a no passing zone
  • Pentagon (pointed up) – school zone ahead, school crossing zone, or country route sign
  • Crossbuck (an “X”) – railroad crossing
  • Diamond – call attention to unexpected conditions and to situations that might not be readily apparent to road users
  • Rectangle (including square) – provide guidance to drivers and inform them of regulatory notices
  • Trapezoid – recreational and cultural interest areas or national forest route sign

Now that you know what each color and shape means, let’s take a look at five specific signs. We provided the meaning for each sign so that you have a better idea of how to use colors and shapes in combination.

5 Examples of Road Signs and Their Meanings

  1. One Way Left Sign;One Way Sign – this sign is used to indicate streets or roadways where traffic is allowed to travel in one direction only. It features a white and black color scheme, indicating that it’s a traffic regulation. One Way Signs are rectangular to provide guidance to the driver and further solidify its regulatory theme.
  2. School Zone Sign;School Zone Sign – this sign is used to identify the location of a designated school zone, warn drivers that they’re approaching a school area, or warn drivers that they are approaching a school zone crossing. The fluorescent yellow-green color scheme in this instance indicates that there are pedestrians present as well as a school zone. The pentagon does similar by indicating there is a school zone ahead or a school crossing zone.
  3. School Zone Sign;Emergency Scene Ahead Sign – this sign is used to warn drivers that there is some form of motor vehicle accident or emergency ahead and they should proceed with caution. The fluorescent pink indicates that there is an incident nearby. The diamond shape, meanwhile, warns of possible hazards ahead.
  4. School Zone Sign;Road Work Ahead Sign – this temporary warning sign serves as a general warning of obstructions or restrictions. It’s located in advance of road construction. The orange is used to indicate that traffic is being temporarily affected and the diamond shape warns of possible hazards. When you see a construction sign like this one, it’s best to slow down, proceed with caution, and monitor other signs that may be present.
  5. School Zone Sign;Hurricane Evacuation Route Sign – this sign is used to help drivers navigate through the nearest hurricane evacuation route. The blue color further indicates the nature of the sign, while the rectangle helps to provide guidance to drivers. Hurricane Evacuation Route Signs may also be accompanied by another blue and white sign telling you to tune into a specific radio station for further instructions.

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