Traffic signs and signals

Stop light in city

All drivers know that road signs make traveling a little easier by providing pertinent information and regulating the flow of traffic. They provide us with the rules of the road and are absolutely necessary in order for traffic to move safely? Roadway signs in the United States are increasingly using symbols, shapes and colors rather than words to convey their massage so that we can immediately react to them. This approach overcomes language barriers and is becoming the standard for traffic control messaging throughout the world. Familiarity with traffic signage symbols is important for every user of the road in order to maintain safety and drive efficiently. To drive safely, therefore, we must be able to recognize these symbols and know what they mean.

The color of roadway signs is an important indicator of the information they contain. The use of red on signs is limited to stop, yield, and prohibitions signs. A white background indicates a regulatory sign; yellow conveys a general warning message; green shows permitted traffic movements or directional guidance; fluorescent yellow/green indicates pedestrian crossings and school zones; coral is used for incident management signs; blue indicates road user services, tourist information, and evacuation routes; and brown is for guidance to sites of public recreation or cultural interest.

Sign shape can also alert roadway users to the type of information displayed on a sign. Examples of many of the sign shapes and their purpose can be found at:

As a driver, it is your duty to learn the functional meaning of each basic shape of traffic signs:

  • First, there's the eight sided (octagon) shape, which always means STOP. It also means you cannot start again until you are sure the cross-street or roadway is clear of closely approaching vehicles and pedestrians.
  • Next is the triangle that tells you to YIELD. The old ones are yellow; the new ones will be red. You must slow down to a reasonable speed and stop, if necessary for safety, allowing approaching vehicles to cross safely.
  • One of the most helpful signs is the DIAMOND shape, a square placed with corners centered at top and bottom, which is always used for WARNING of hazards you can expect ahead.
  • When you see a ROUND shape, you'd better start slowing down, because it means there is a rail road crossing 400 to 700 feet ahead.
  • The CROSSBUCK shape appears at the railroad crossing itself. It may be accompanied by a crossing gate, a flashing signal or traffic light.

Rectangular or square signs (not mounted in the diamond position) can be regulatory, such as speed limit, “One Way,” “No Turn,” “Wrong Way,” “Stop at Line,” “Do Not Pass,” or they may be informational signs to aid the driver in identifying route numbers, mileage, exits, turn lanes, roadside accommodations, etc.

The lighted traffic control signal, the familiar “traffic light”, controls our movements at intersections. The bottom, green portion of the signal permits us to drive through the crossing, IF it is clear of other traffic. The center amber light in the signal warns that the “Go” cycle has ended, and we must not enter the intersection after the red light appears. When the amber light goes on, it does not mean to speed up to get through the intersection. Amber means that you need to prepare to stop. The red STOP light commands that we stop our vehicle at the marked stop line, or before entering the crosswalk or intersection. We must remain stopped until the signal changes to green. This enables us to share the crossing with cross traffic in time-controlled cycles that are fair to all drivers.

When we approach a flashing red signal light at an intersection, we must stop, because it marks a hazardous crossing. The more heavily traveled cross street or highway may have a flashing amber, caution light, which means we must slow down, look carefully and proceed with caution.

Other lighted signals are lane markers on reversible lanes of expressways. We must be sure to drive in lanes marked by a green arrow pointing downward. We must stay off lanes marked by a red X, because they will accommodate traffic in the opposite direction. If an amber X appears over our lane, we must get into a green arrow lane at once, because it means the X will change to red.

While on the subject of traffic signs, don't forget the pavement markings. Stripes, reflectorized or painted, mark the centerline of two way roads. In rural areas they frequently are in 15 foot strips on the centerline, 25 feet apart. In urban areas a solid line separates two way traffic. When there are two or more traffic lanes on each side, double yellow stripes mark the centerline. Yellow stripes also are used to mark no passing zones. If a yellow stripe appears on your side of the centerline, you must not cross it to pass another vehicle. If all drivers would realize the importance of traffic signs and signals, and would observe them to the letter, driving would be a much happier experience.

We must remember that warning signs are primarily for the protection of the driver who is unacquainted with the road. It is also very important that all drivers note their location. In rural areas, warning signs should normally be placed 750 feet before a road hazard or condition. On high speed roads—and particularly on freeways—advance warning distances may be as great as 1,500 feet or more! Where speeds are relatively low, the advance distance is only about 250 feet. It is important for you to know that the actual advance warning distance will be determined by two factors, the prevailing speed and the prevailing condition. These bear, respectively, on the time available for a driver to comprehend and to react to the message, and the time needed to perform any necessary maneuver. It is every driver's responsibility to identify and obey all traffic control signs. Make it a point to periodically review the different signs and to become acquainted with their meanings.

Highway signs are important because they help maintain safe driving conditions. Without these signs, no one would know how fast to drive, what direction to drive down a road, whether or not the roads have an upcoming hazard, or whether they are approaching a merge. It would be pure chaos. Highway signs help reduce the rate of car accidents, help ensure the safety of pedestrians, and help drivers know how to communicate with other drivers in a non-verbal way that keeps us all safe.

By: Mike Harding


Stop light in city
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