The Evolution of Road Signs

Often taken for granted, street and road signage has a long history of iteration and refinement starting with the Romans. In the 3rd century, the Romans erected giant columns so travelers could have an idea of how far away from Rome they were and which direction they should travel. These were called Milestones, (which is where the name originates).

In the middle ages, this concept was improved upon and became more advanced. Intersections in many European countries had signs which pointed to certain cities, at times even listing the distance to towns. Europeans once again improved upon the concept in the late 19th century- this time it was the Italian Touring Club who made the next improvement to signage. The organisation was founded in 1894 to promote the values of cycling and tourism. The Italian Touring Club was integral in improving the quality of road signs by petitioning for better road signs for drivers in 1895.

Another improvement made in the 19th century was the material road signs were made from. Up to the early 1800s, road signs were made from wood and used lead paint. Metal eventually was used in its place, making the material last considerably longer. Reflective paint was also used to improve night time visibility.

These improvements in the 19th century coincided with the introduction of the automobile, when better road signage was vital. In 1908 the International Road Congress got together in Rome to regulate the usage and set the basic road sign patterns. They eventually agreed on four pictorial symbols.

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Between 1928 and 1949 a standardised system of international road signage was heavily worked on, which produced the European Road sign system. It wasn’t until 1964 that the UK adopted a version of the European Road sign system.

To this day, the UK is the only member of the European Union to use Imperial Measurements and the only highway network. All road signs in England, Scotland, Wales and the Isle of Man are regulated by the Traffic Signs Regulations and General Directions since 1964. Six amendments have been made to this system since its introduction, most recently in 2008 and 2011.

Despite the differences in road signage around the world, it is still easy enough to interpret what a road sign says regardless of the language or country. Some signs, such as those in Wales have been made bi-lingual to make navigation slightly easier. Thanks to the standardisation of road signs, navigating an unfamiliar area is a breeze. Strict guidelines by several different government committees have been put in place to make sure that shape, units of measurement, colours and lettering are all standardised and easily recognisable. They have also been improved from the earlier reflective paint and are now made from retroflective materials to make sure drivers are able to see them in the dark and in poor weather conditions.

The next time you travel the A1 or the highway try to remember the long history of road signage which is now neglected by drivers the world over.

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