Reading Activity: What Makes a Good Road Sign?

Many road signs are bizarre when thought about logically. Just what is one supposed to do if there is a danger of falling rocks? And if the road is slippery, will your car tires really cross like the frightening slide marks seen on the sign? But even if some symbols do not stand up to inspection, they send a message that is quickly recognized. Or at least, that’s the hope.

Out of 500 drivers surveyed last year, none was able to correctly recognize 12 road signs and only one sign – the speed camera – was known to all of them. A review of signs has begun by the Department for Transport, looking at ways to decrease the number of signs and introduce more technology. So what makes a good sign? “The most important thing is that it works,” says Michael Wolff, chairman of The Sign Design Society. Not only do modern drivers travel faster than before, they are also listening to the radio, chatting on their hands-free phone and trying to get children in the back under control. Distractions are everywhere. With so much competition for a driver’s attention, a good sign must be clear and simple so that it can be seen, read and understood immediately. The red no-entry sign is one that, even without words or pictures, transfers its message. But others signs don’t. Many drivers are unable to recognize the “no stopping” sign. And former police driving instructor Chris Walker says the “give way to oncoming traffic” sign is debated at driving school because it is illogical and takes too long to “work out”.

“Symbols don’t have to be correct; they are there to transfer an idea and be understood,” Mr. Wolff says. Some widely used signs have attracted criticism for being outdated. The image of stooped elderly people crossing a road has been branded as “insulting” by Help the Aged.

Different colors create very different reactions in the human mind, says Dr. David Cowell, who specializes in the psychology of color. The brain is very sensitive to the level of energy in the light that passes through your eyes, with different colors of light carrying different amounts of energy. “Blue [the color of motorway signage] suggests harmony and relaxation,” says Dr Cowell. “It is the color of nature in relaxed form. It encourages social communication and consideration of others.” Orange and yellow “suggest a positive future”, he says, the point being that the color of signs surrounding road works is clearly meant to encourage frustrated drivers to think beyond the current delays. Different shaped signs also create different psychological reactions, suggests Dr Cowell. “A triangular sign has points and represents danger,” which is why the shape is used for warning signs. “Rectangular signs are the same shape as a book and therefore give information. Round signs are instructional. They look like the end of a pointing finger giving you an instruction.”

While the fundamental design of the country’s road signs has remained unchanged for almost half a century, the number of signs seems to be multiplying. Today British roads can seem crowded with symbols warning drivers of every foreseeable danger, from falling rocks to passing deer. As well as fuelling fears, the streetscape is being damaged, and the increase in signs reduces their effectiveness. “Drivers now face a system overload,” says Mr. Walker. “Signs are doubled, in some cases triplicated, leaving little time for the information to be seen and processed.” Even the most well-designed road sign will be of little use if nobody can make it out.

Adapted from © Dominic Koole, BBC News 2008

  1. a) Give short answers to the following questions.
  2. Which road sign was known to all drivers?
  3. What is considered as a good sign?
  4. What is the red no-entry sign?
  5. Which sign is unrecognizable by drivers?
  6. Why sign is debated at driving school?
  7. Which image has been branded as “insulting”?


Read the text and fill in the gaps with appropriate words.

Various colors incite various reactions in the human mind. The brain is subtle to the level of 1___________in the light that passes through your eyes. 2________ symbolizes coordination and relaxation. It is the color of nature in calm form. It inspires social communication and consideration of others. 3________ and yellow “propose a bright future, which means that the 4________ of signs near the road works encourages the drivers to think past the postponements. Various 5________ signs create different psychological reactions. A 6________ sign has points and says danger. 7___________ signs are the same shape as a book and give information. 8_______ signs are instructional. The number of 9_________ is increasing. Today British roads are packed with 10__________. The streetscape is being damaged, and the increase of signs decreases their efficiency. If nobody understands the signs, then it will be of little use.


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