The United States uses way too much text for regulatory traffic signs

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Look at these two signs in Berlin (right outside the American embassy). They’re universal across the European Union – and probably in adjacent non-EU countries. The upper one means “yield” and the lower one with the white arrow means “compulsory right turn”. In the United States, there are several signs that mean the same thing. The simplest one we have comes in two forms: symbol and text. That makes two different signs, but there’s a third one. It’s also a text sign but has extra words!

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American symbol sign (actually a symbol with text): The sign has an arrow pointing in an upward curve toward the right and the word “only”. Photo by Joseph Dennis. 

Yet there is no need to mix a symbol and a word, as both parts of the message (“right turn” and “only maneuver you can make here”) can be communicated with symbols. In the EU, the right turn sign has two states, both depicted by symbols: off and on. Off meaning you cannot turn right there and is depicted with an arrow pointing right, on a white background, circumscribed with a red circle. The “on” version means you must turn right there and is depicted with an arrow pointing right, on a blue background. (It would be pointless to have a sign saying you can turn right somewhere.)

The next sign is the text-only version of the “right turn only” sign.

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American text sign: The sign says “right turn only”. Photo by Michael Jantzen. 

And then there’s the most ridiculous one, “right lane must turn right”. In many places, Chicago included, bikes and buses are excepted.

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A group of people protest the stupidity of this sign design. I mean, a bunch of Tea Partiers protest our socialist road system. Or something. Photo by Susan Adams. 

All of the signs depicted above mean the same thing! Why have we developed four unique ways to communicate a single meaning?

While I’m on the subject of right turns, here’re two signs in San Francisco, on Market Street at Octavia Boulevard. Octavia is the end of the Central Freeway, so people driving here are in the mindset of fast highway driving. Cars cannot be turned right here and bicyclists are warned to look out for people making illegal right turns. In other words, “Beware car drivers who break the law”.

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Photo of “right turn prohibited” symbol sign and “[bikes] watch for prohibited right turns” text sign by Adam Fritzler. 

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About Steven Vance

Enthusiast for urbanism, bicycling as transportation, and open data. Building a bicycle culture in Chicago.
  • AdamHerstein

    It makes sense that Europe uses mostly symbols because of the large amount of different languages spoken there. In the US, we only one official language, so there’s no obligation by the government to make signs multilingual. I personally like the symbols much better, as they are universal. People in the US who can’t read English might have a tough time reading our signs, especially considering the high population of Spanish-speakers here. Maybe in 20 years, when Spanish-speakers outnumber English-speakers, we’ll change our signs. :-)

    • http://www.stevevance.net/ Steven Vance

      I’d like to know about the history of road sign design in Europe. It wasn’t always easy for citizens of one country to drive their cars into another.

      It looks like Ontario has a mix of road sign designs.
      http://www.mto.gov.on.ca/english/traveller/signs/

      And while I was looking for road sign designs in Québec, I found this page about right turns on red.
      http://www.mtq.gouv.qc.ca/portal/page/portal/grand_public_en/vehicules_promenade/reseau_routier/signalisation/virage_droite_feu_rouge

      They have begun allowing right turns on red, but say that “it also presents a unique opportunity for Québec drivers to show their civic-mindedness and courtesy towards other road users.” How cute.

      • AdamHerstein

        I’m guessing that a couple of World Wars made driving into other countries quite difficult.

    • http://twitter.com/Lascurettes John Lascurettes

      America has no official language. English is the de-facto standard, but there is no official language. We are a multi-cultural country.

      • AdamHerstein

        If we were truly multi-cultural, then our signs wouldn’t just be in one language. English is the de-facto standard because our government doesn’t want to incorporate any other languages.

  • Carim

    While I agree symbol-only signs look cleaner, at the end of the day traffic signs are about safety, not aesthetics.
    People can and do drive negligently, and traffic designers display directions and warnings in a variety of ways to try to catch the attention of the distracted driver and/or passenger who can alert the driver, and it seems to work. Of course, totally distracted or indifferent drivers will still disregard signs, regardless of what they display–but, you cannot get through to everyone.
    If you had some hard empirical evidence from multiple traffic studies establishg that just using symbols somehow caught drivers’ attention better, then I would say fine, go for it. Otherwise, it seems just to be an argument about aesthetics, without proper regard for safety. Also, what works in a European culture, may or may not translate into an American culture, and vice-versa.

    • http://www.stevevance.net/ Steven Vance

      European culture isn’t a homogenous thing. The continent is made up of dozens of countries and regions and places each with its own unique culture; they come with their own peculiarities of driving. Ever hear about driving in Rome? Is it the same as what you heard about driving in Copenhagen?

      The book Traffic, which I’ve discussed here and on Grid Chicago, talks about “sign indifference” and over-prevalence. There are so many signs on the road that we stop looking at them. We stop seeing them. Or we only see signs we expect to be there. For example, I come to a 4-way intersection in a neighborhood and look for a stop sign. There might not be one there! Or I don’t look for one in a situation where there is one, only because I rarely encounter a stop sign at that situation.

      Me presenting these signs here is not about aesthetics or safety. It’s about consistency and speed and quality in communicating a single message: “You cannot turn right” (or, really, whatever the message is that needs to be communicated). When we use three signs in a single city or state or country to communicate the same thing, that’s two opportunities where the message might not be communicated (because you’re not familiar with the sign; see previous paragraph about sign indifference). If we use symbols instead of text, there’s a possibility that the message is 1) less often misunderstood, 2) more quickly communicated and understood.

      This post is also – implicitly – about updating signs when standards change. The standards are held federally, in the MUTCD. Someone pointed out to me on Twitter that the “RIGHT TURN ONLY” sign was eliminated from the manual in the 1960s.

    • AdamHerstein

      Again, I think the main reason for the use of symbols in Europe as opposed to text is that there are so many different languages spoken in Europe, and symbols can easily be understood by everyone – regardless of language.

      I found this useful article on Wikipedia describing differences in European signs, with pictures of all of them: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comparison_of_European_traffic_signs

  • http://www.facebook.com/mortisha.brown Mortisha Brown

    I prefer the raod symbols more than text, but let’s face it, not everyone can understand what it means. But I believe that it’s everyone’s responsibility to know and learn every traffic road signs.
    http://www.trafficsignpro.com/

  • Chelsea Richards

    U.S. should not complicate making regulated traffic signs and symbols in order to prevent confusions and apparently accidents along the way.
    TrafficSignPro.com