History of road signs

Historical origins

It was probably the Romans who first used “traffic signs” in Britain. They marked off road distances at one thousand paces (about one mile) with stones called “milliaries”.

Most early signposts were erected by private individuals at their own expense.

The beginnings of a formal direction system

A law passed in 1648 required each parish to place guideposts at its crossroads, but it was not until after the General Turnpike Act 1773 that these “guide posts” or “fingerposts” became more common.

The introduction of warning signs

During the second half of the nineteenth century, bicycles became more popular. Steep hills and sharp bends were very dangerous for early cyclists, and “danger” and “caution” signs were erected at the top of steep hills.

Signs showing skull and cross bones were erected at the most dangerous places. Local authorities and cycling organisations installed an estimated 4000 warning signs.

The arrival of the motor car

The year 1896 heralded the era of the motor car, and some motoring associations took up the business of placing signs. The Motor Car Act 1903 made local authorities responsible for placing certain warning and prohibitory signs.

The signs were for crossroads, steep hills and dangerous bends. “A” and “B” numbering of roads was introduced in 1921, and these numbers were shown on finger post-style signs alongside the destination and distance.

Town or village name signs and warning signs for schools, level crossings and double bends were introduced at the same time.

Further improvements

The main task of signposting our roads during the 1920s and 1930s still fell on the motoring organisations, but in in 1931 a committee chaired by Sir Henry Maybury was asked to recommend improvements to the signing then in use.

By 1933 further new signs began to appear, including “No entry” and “Keep left” signs, warning signs for narrow roads and bridges, low bridges, roundabouts and hospitals.

Other signs followed during the 1930s, including “Halt at major road ahead”. These formed the basis of our traffic signing until the early 1960s.

Lines on the road

It was not until after 1918 that white lines began to appear on British roads, and during the 1920s their use spread rapidly.

In 1926 the first Ministry of Transport circular on the subject laid down general principles on the use of white lines. In the 1930s, white lines were used as”stop” lines at road junctions controlled by either police or traffic lights.

Reflecting road studs (often referred to as “cat’s eyes”) first came into use in 1934. By 1944, white lines were also being used to indicate traffic lanes and define the boundary of the main carriageway at entrances to side roads and lay-bys, and in conjunction with “halt” signs. In 1959, regulations came into effect to control overtaking by the use of double white lines.

Adaption for motorways

It was realised that the old system of signing would not be adequate for motorways, and the Anderson Committee was set up in 1958 to consider new designs. It recommended much larger signs, with blue backgrounds.

Then, in 1961, the Worboys Committee began to review the complete system of traffic signing. It concluded that the UK should adopt the main principles of the European system, with the message expressed as a symbol within a red triangle (for warning signs) or a red circle (for prohibitions).

Work began on the conversion of British signs in 1965, and this is still the basic system in use today.

Later developments

Later developments include the use of yellow box markings at busy road junctions, special signs and road markings at pedestrian crossings, mini roundabouts and bus lanes.

Regulations published in 1994 included new regulatory and warning signs and simplified the yellow line system of waiting restrictions that was originally introduced in the 1950s. Further Regulations were published in 2002.

More use is being made of new technology to provide better information to driverson hazards, delays and diversions. The future will undoubtedly see more developments in traffic signing to keep pace with the changing traffic demands on our roads.