The earliest road signs were milestones, giving distance or direction; for example, the Romans erected stone columns throughout their empire giving the distance to Rome. In the Middle Ages, multidirectional signs at intersections became common, giving directions to cities and towns.
The first modern roadsigns erected on a wide scale were designed for riders of high or ‘ordinary’ bicycles in the late 1870s and early 1880s. These machines were fast, silent and their nature made them difficult to control, moreover their riders travelled considerable distances and often preferred to tour on unfamiliar roads. For such riders, cycling organisations began to erect signs that warned of potential hazards ahead (particularly steep hills), rather than merely giving distance or directions to places, thereby contributing the sign type that defines ‘modern’ traffic signs.
The development of automobiles encouraged more complex signage systems using more than just text based notices. One of the first modern-day road sign systems was devised by the Italian Touring Club in 1895. By 1900, a Congress of the International League of Touring Organizations in Paris was considering proposals for standardization of road signage. In 1903 the British government introduced four ‘national’ signs based on shape, but the basic patterns of most traffic signs were set at the 1908 International Road Congress in Rome. In 1909, nine European governments agreed on the use of four pictorial symbols, indicating “bump”, “curve”, “intersection”, and “grade-level railroad crossing”. The intensive work on international road signs that took place between 1926 and 1949 eventually led to the development of the European road sign system. Both Britain and the United States developed their own road signage systems, both of which were adopted or modified by many other nations in their respective spheres of influence. The UK adopted a version of the European road signs in 1964 and, over past decades, North American signage began using some symbols and graphics mixed in with English.
Over the years, change was gradual. Pre-industrial signs were stone or wood, but with the development of Darby’s method of smelting iron using coke, painted cast iron became favoured in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Cast iron continued to be used until the mid twentieth century, but it was gradually displaced by aluminium or other materials and processes, such as vitreous enamelled and/or pressed malleable iron, or (later) steel. Since 1945 most signs have been made from sheet aluminium with adhesive plastic coatings, these are normally retroreflective for nighttime and low-light visibility. Before the development of reflective plastics, reflectivity was provided by glass reflectors set into the lettering and symbols.
New generations of traffic signs based on electronic displays can also change their text (or, in some countries, symbols) to provide for “intelligent control” linked to automated traffic sensors or remote manual input. In over 20 countries, real-time Traffic Message Channel incident warnings are conveyed directly to vehicle navigation systems using inaudible signals carried via FM radio, 3G cellular data and satellite broadcasts. Finally, cars can pay tolls and trucks pass safety screening checks using video numberplate scanning, or RFID transponders in windshields linked to antennae over the road, in support on-board signalling, toll collection and travel time monitoring.
Yet another “medium” for transferring information ordinarily associated with visible signs is RIAS (Remote Infrared Audible Signage), e.g., “talking signs” for print-handicapped (including blind/low-vision/illiterate) people. These are infra-red transmitters serving the same purpose as the usual graphic signs when received by an appropriate device such as a hand-held receiver or one built into a cell phone.
The North American, Australian and New Zealand colours normally have these meanings:
- red with white for stop signs, yield, and forbidden actions (such as No Parking)
- green with white letters for informational signs, such as directions, distances, and places
- brown with white for signs to parks, historic sites, ski areas, forests, and campgrounds
- blue with white for rest areas, food, gasoline, hospitals, lodging, and other services
- white with black (or red) letters for regulatory signs, such as speed limits (or parking)
- yellow with black letters and symbols for warning signs, such as curves and school zones
- orange with black letters for temporary traffic control zones and detours associated with road construction
Regulatory signs are also sometimes seen with white letters on red or black signs. In Quebec, blue is often used for tourist attractions and brown public services such as rest areas; many black-on-yellow signs are red-on-white instead.
Many Canadian provinces and U.S. states now use fluorescent orange for construction signs.
Highway symbols and markers
Every state and province has different markers for its own highways, but use standard ones for all federal highways. Many special highways– such as the Queen Elizabeth Way, Trans-Canada Highway, and various auto trails in the U.S. – have used unique signs.
Where signs use a language, the recognized language/s of the area is normally used. Signs in most of the U.S., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand are in English. Quebec uses French, while New Brunswick and the Jacques-Cartier and Champlain bridges, in Montreal (as well as some parts in the West Island), use both English and French, and a number of other provinces and states, such as Ontario, Manitoba, and Vermont use bilingual French–English signs in certain localities.
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