Road Signs: What do the Rules of the Road Mean?

Have you ever passed a road sign and realized you didn’t understand what the message or symbol was telling you to do? Or have you ever wondered if the color and shape of the road sign has a specific meaning?

With so many signs on the road, it’s easy to get confused wondering what each one means. To help prevent this, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) has increasingly used symbols rather than words to convey the different safety messages on roadways and highways. Pictograms and symbols are easier to recognize and understand, cross various language barriers, and often close the communication gap. Symbols are quickly becoming the standard for traffic control devices throughout the world.

Understanding the meaning of road signs can be as simple as recognizing what the colors, shapes, and the symbols on the sign represent.

For instance, the colors that make up the road signs are an essential indicator of the information they contain. The standards for the design and application of the signs as controlled under the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) explain the significance of the colors on road signs.

The meaning of colors on road signs
  • Red:  Red generally means stop. The use of red on signs is limited to stop, yield, and prohibition signs.
  • White: A white background indicates a regulatory sign.
  • Yellow: Yellow conveys a general caution message.
  • Green: Green shows permitted traffic movements or directional guidance.
  • Fluorescent yellow/green: Indicates pedestrian crossings and school zones.
  • Orange: Orange is used for warning and guidance in roadways work zones.
  • Coral: Coral is used for incident management signs.
  • Blue: Blue indicates road user services, tourist information, and evacuation routes.
  • Brown: Brown is used to show guidance to sites of public recreation or cultural interest.

Although the colors play a critical factor in providing consistency throughout the roads and highways, each shape of road signs has a specific meaning, as well. The shape of road signs can alert drivers about the message prior to reading the contents. Depending on weather conditions, the only thing you might be able to make out is the shape of the sign. If that’s the case – the shape of the sign is just as critical as the message, if not more.

The meaning of the shape of road signs
  • An octagon road sign conveys the need to stop. A stop sign is the only sign that uses this shape.
  • An upside down triangle road sign always means “yield.”
  • Diamond-shaped road signs always warn of possible hazards ahead. These are traffic signs, temporary traffic control signs, and some pedestrian and bicycle signs.
  • Pennant-shaped road signs warn drivers of no passing zones.
  • Round-shaped road signs are used for railroad signs. When you see a round traffic sign, you will likely see a railroad crossing or light rail transit crossing signs ahead.
  • A pentagon-shaped road signs provides warning that a school zone is ahead or school crossing zone is approaching.
  • A horizontal rectangle-shaped road signs usually provides guidance to drivers but can be used for a variety of needs.
  • Vertical rectangle road signs are typically used to inform drivers of regulatory notices, such as speed limits.

The MUTCD has specific requirements for the size of signs and the material the message is printed on, in addition to the color, shape, and symbol as mentioned above. For example, when signs are used at night, they need to be either retroreflective, with a material that has a smooth, sealed outer surface, or illuminated to show similar shape and color both day and night.

To read what road sign symbols mean and see a few examples click here


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