Traffic Signs

Lecture notes in Traffic Engineering And Management

Date: February 19, 2014



Traffic control device is the medium used for communicating between traffic engineer and road users. Unlike other modes of transportation, there is no control on the drivers using the road. Here traffic control devices comes to the help of the traffic engineer. The major types of traffic control devices used are- traffic signs, road markings , traffic signals and parking control. This chapter discusses traffic control signs. Different types of traffic signs are regulatory signs, warning signs and informatory signs.


The requirements of traffic control devices are listed below:
  1. The control device should fulfill a need : Each device must have a specific purpose for the safe and efficient operation of traffic flow. The superfluous devices should not be used.
  2. It should command attention from the road users: This affects the design of signs. For commanding attention, proper visibility should be there. Also the sign should be distinctive and clear. The sign should be placed in such a way that the driver requires no extra effort to see the sign.
  3. It should convey a clear, simple meaning: Clarity and simplicity of message is essential for the driver to properly understand the meaning in short time. The use of color, shape and legend as codes becomes important in this regard. The legend should be kept short and simple so that even a less educated driver could understand the message in less time.
  4. Road users must respect the signs: Respect is commanded only when the drivers are conditioned to expect that all devices carry meaningful and important messages. Overuse, misuse and confusing messages of devices tends the drivers to ignore them.
  5. The control device should provide adequate time for proper response from the road users: This is again related to the design aspect of traffic control devices. The sign boards should be placed at a distance such that the driver could see it and gets sufficient time to respond to the situation. For example, the STOP sign which is always placed at the stop line of the intersection should be visible for at least one safe stopping sight distance away from the stop line.

Communication tools

A number of mechanisms are used by the traffic engineer to communicate with the road user. These mechanisms recognize certain human limitations, particularly eyesight. Messages are conveyed through the following elements.
  1. Color: It is the first and most easily noticed characteristics of a device. Usage of different colors for different signs are important. The most commonly used colors are red, green, yellow, black, blue, and brown . These are used to code certain devices and to reinforce specific messages. Consistent use of colors helps the drivers to identify the presence of sign board ahead.
  2. Shape : It is the second element discerned by the driver next to the color of the device. The categories of shapes normally used are circular, triangular, rectangular, and diamond shape. Two exceptional shapes used in traffic signs are octagonal shape for STOP sign and use of inverted triangle for GIVE WAY (YIELD) sign. Diamond shape signs are not generally used in India.
  3. Legend : This is the last element of a device that the drive comprehends. This is an important aspect in the case of traffic signs. For the easy understanding by the driver, the legend should be short, simple and specific so that it does not divert the attention of the driver. Symbols are normally used as legends so that even a person unable to read the language will be able to understand that. There is no need of it in the case of traffic signals and road markings.
  4. Pattern: It is normally used in the application of road markings, complementing traffic signs. Generally solid, double solid and dotted lines are used. Each pattern conveys different type of meaning. The frequent and consistent use of pattern to convey information is recommended so that the drivers get accustomed to the different types of markings and can instantly recognize them.

Types of traffic signs

There are several hundreds of traffic signs available covering wide variety of traffic situations. They can be classified into three main categories.
  1. Regulatory signs: These signs require the driver to obey the signs for the safety of other road users.
  2. Warning signs:These signs are for the safety of oneself who is driving and advice the drivers to obey these signs.
  3. Informative signs: These signs provide information to the driver about the facilities available ahead, and the route and distance to reach the specific destinations
In addition special type of traffic sign namely work zone signs are also available. These type of signs are used to give warning to the road users when some construction work is going on the road. They are placed only for short duration and will be removed soon after the work is over and when the road is brought back to its normal condition. The first three signs will be discussed in detail below.

Regulatory signs

These signs are also called mandatory signs because it is mandatory that the drivers must obey these signs. If the driver fails to obey them, the control agency has the right to take legal action against the driver. These signs are primarily meant for the safety of other road users. These signs have generally black legend on a white background. They are circular in shape with red borders. The regulatory signs can be further classified into :
  1. Right of way series: These include two unique signs that assign the right of way to the selected approaches of an intersection. They are the STOP sign and GIVE WAY sign For example, when one minor road and major road meets at an intersection, preference should be given to the vehicles passing through the major road. Hence the give way sign board will be placed on the minor road to inform the driver on the minor road that he should give way for the vehicles on the major road. In case two major roads are meeting, then the traffic engineer decides based on the traffic on which approach the sign board has to be placed. Stop sign is another example of regulatory signs that comes in right of way series which requires the driver to stop the vehicle at the stop line.
  2. Speed series: Number of speed signs may be used to limit the speed of the vehicle on the road. They include typical speed limit signs, truck speed, minimum speed signs etc. Speed limit signs are placed to limit the speed of the vehicle to a particular speed for many reasons. Separate truck speed limits are applied on high speed roadways where heavy commercial vehicles must be limited to slower speeds than passenger cars for safety reasons. Minimum speed limits are applied on high speed roads like expressways, freeways etc. where safety is again a predominant reason. Very slow vehicles may present hazard to themselves and other vehicles also.
  3. Movement series: They contain a number of signs that affect specific vehicle maneuvers. These include turn signs, alignment signs, exclusion signs, one way signs etc. Turn signs include turn prohibitions and lane use control signs. Lane use signs make use of arrows to specify the movements which all vehicles in the lane must take. Turn signs are used to safely accommodate turns in unsignalized intersections.
  4. Parking series: They include parking signs which indicate not only parking prohibitions or restrictions, but also indicate places where parking is permitted, the type of vehicle to be parked, duration for parking etc.
  5. Pedestrian series: They include both legend and symbol signs. These signs are meant for the safety of pedestrians and include signs indicating pedestrian only roads, pedestrian crossing sites etc.
  6. Miscellaneous: Wide variety of signs that are included in this category are: a "KEEP OF MEDIAN" sign, signs indicating road closures, signs restricting vehicles carrying hazardous cargo or substances, signs indicating vehicle weight limitations etc.
Some examples of the regulatory signs are shown in figure 1. They include a stop sign, give way sign, signs for no entry, sign indicating prohibition for right turn, vehicle width limit sign, speed limit sign etc.
Figure 1: Examples of regulatory signs ( stop sign, give way sign, signs for no entry, sign indicating prohibition for right turn, vehicle width limit sign, speed limit sign)

Warning signs

Warning signs or cautionary signs give information to the driver about the impending road condition. They advice the driver to obey the rules. These signs are meant for the own safety of drivers. They call for extra vigilance from the part of drivers. The color convention used for this type of signs is that the legend will be black in color with a white background. The shape used is upward triangular or diamond shape with red borders. Some of the examples for this type of signs are given in fig 2 and includes right hand curve sign board, signs for narrow road, sign indicating railway track ahead etc.
Figure 2: Examples of cautionary signs ( right hand curve sign board, signs for narrow road, sign indicating railway track ahead)

Informative signs

Informative signs also called guide signs, are provided to assist the drivers to reach their desired destinations. These are predominantly meant for the drivers who are unfamiliar to the place. The guide signs are redundant for the users who are accustomed to the location.

Some of the examples for these type of signs are route markers, destination signs, mile posts, service information, recreational and cultural interest area signing etc. Route markers are used to identify numbered highways. They have designs that are distinctive and unique. They are written black letters on yellow background. Destination signs are used to indicate the direction to the critical destination points, and to mark important intersections. Distance in kilometers are sometimes marked to the right side of the destination. They are, in general, rectangular with the long dimension in the horizontal direction. They are color coded as white letters with green background.

Mile posts are provided to inform the driver about the progress along a route to reach his destination. Service guide signs give information to the driver regarding various services such as food, fuel, medical assistance etc. They are written with white letters on blue background. Information on historic, recreational and other cultural area is given on white letters with brown background. In the figure 3 we can see some examples for informative signs which include route markers, destination signs, mile posts, service center information etc..

Figure 3: Examples of informative signs (route markers, destination signs, mile posts, service center information etc)


Traffic signs are means for exercising control on or passing information to the road users. They may be regulatory, warning, or informative. Among the design aspects of the signs, the size, shape, color and location matters. Some of the signs along with examples were discussed in this chapter. A few web sites discussing on traffic signs are given below:,


  1. L. R Kadiyali. Traffic Engineering and Transportation Planning. Khanna Publishers, New Delhi, 1987.


I wish to thank several of my students and staff of NPTEL for their contribution in this lecture.
Prof. Tom V. Mathew 2014-02-19