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Hidden messages of the road: the signs most drivers don’t even notice

Nick Francis

10 Feb 2021

We all know what most major road signs mean, but the road and the things around it are actually communicating with you much more than you know. Do you know what they all mean?

We probably all like to think we’re aware when we are on the roads, and most of us are to a degree. But while we all know we mustn’t overtake when there’s a solid white line in the road, and that the number 30 in a red circle means we mustn’t go faster than 30mph, there is actually a lot more the road is telling us. Most of us just don’t know where to look or, even if we see them, what they mean. The roads are talking to us more than you might think…

White lines becoming longer with smaller gaps

The white dotted lines which mark lanes of traffic actually warn us when there is a hazard or a junction ahead. The lines become longer and the gaps between them shorter, which encourages us to not change lanes. It isn’t saying you can’t change lanes, like a solid white line does, but it shows us it is more dangerous to do so on that bit of road.

Location marker signs

We bet you’ve driven past thousands of these signs in your lifetime, but do you know what they mean? The information they display could be extremely valuable to you one day. The top line identifies the road you are on, which in the case of the picture below is the M1. The letter underneath denotes the direction you are travelling, either A for northbound or B for southbound. The bottom line shows how many kilometres you’ve travelled from the start of the road. If you break down or have an accident, emergency services and recovery services will be able to pinpoint your location from your nearest sign and get to you quicker.

Coloured cat’s eyes or ‘studs’

Most of us know that cat’s eyes - also known as studs - are designed to help us see the road while driving in the dark, but they actually glow in different colours to give us more specific information. Red cat’s eyes are found at the left hand side of the road – near the kerb or hard shoulder. Yellow cat’s eyes are used in the centre of a dual carriage way or motorway to stop us veering into the centre barriers. White is used to mark the lanes of a road, they are found breaking up the white lines. Finally, green cat’s eyes tell us they can be driven over - green for ‘go’ - and are normally found at a junction when you might need to pull off.

Airport direction signs

A simple one this, but still one that a lot of people don’t know. The small symbol of an aircraft on a road sign will always point its nose in the direction of the airport.

Double bend sign

Similarly, the road sign which warns of a double bend or series of bends coming up will always show which direction the first bend takes. So in the example below the sign is showing the first bend travels to the right. If it was to the left the image would be reversed.

Emergency diversion signs

This is a fun one, because all sorts of rumours exist around them. Some people believe the small yellow symbols on road signs – which are either square, triangle, diamond or circle – are pointing out where the nearest bunker to survive a nuclear attack is. Sadly it’s nothing near as exciting. The symbols actually show diversion routes in the event of a road being closed in an emergency. For example, if you see the square on a sign at the junction you are being pulled off at, you can follow the subsequent road signs with the square to re-join the motorway later. Be warned: sometimes the symbols are solid black shapes, sometimes they are black outlines of the shapes. So there are up to eight routes to follow. Don’t get confused between a solid square and a square outline.

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Nick Francis

10 Feb 2021