Signs of the Road Explained

Every road sign communicates a message to drivers and pedestrians. Not only that, but the color and shape of each sign signifies the type of message displayed. If you’re a regular driver, you’ll know that it’s pretty common for a sign to have no words printed on it at all.

While you’re bound to see a little variety state to state, symbols and traffic signs are fairly consistent across the USA.

Let’s break down the different types of signs on the road, and how to recognize them.

Regulatory Signs

A regulatory sign is a symbol that reinforces or signifies rules of the road. Among other things, these signs let you know:

  • If you have to stop or yield ahead.
  • Where you can and can’t turn.
  • How fast you can go (the speed limit).
  • Where you can and can’t park.
  • If your vehicle is allowed on the upcoming road.

Regulatory signs almost always have white backgrounds and are square-shaped or vertical rectangles. There are two exceptions, which have red backgrounds. These are:

  • Stop signs, which are octagons.
  • Yield signs, which are upside-down triangles.

As you’re probably aware, the color red stands out.Therefore, it should be easy to pay special attention when you see it on a road sign. You’ll ONLY see the color red on a road sign when:

  • You need to stop or yield* ahead.
  • An action is prohibited (No U-turn, No parking, etc.).

Disobeying a regulatory road sign is a sure-fire way to get a ticket.

*NOTE: Sometimes a YIELD sign will be yellow to indicate a warning. More on that in the warning sign section below.

Brief Glossary of Regulatory Signs

Let’s take a look at some common regulatory road signs and their meanings:

  • STOP: Stop signs tell you when you must cease forward movement. In other words, STOP!
  • YIELD: A yield sign means that other drivers have the right of way—allow them to go before you proceed.
  • RIGHT TURN/LEFT TURN ONLY: You’re only allowed to go the direction specified. Often times, if you disobey this sign, you’ll end up facing oncoming traffic. Scary!
  • ONE WAY: Traffic on this street is only allowed to go the direction the arrow on the sign is pointed. If you turn the opposite way, you risk a head-on collision.
  • LEFT OR THROUGH:This sign lets you know you can EITHER go straight OR turn left from this lane.
  • DO NOT ENTER: Another self-explanatory sign—this means don’t go in this way, there’s a good chance someone will be coming out.

Construction & Warning Signs

Both warning and construction traffic signs tell you to be prepared for something up ahead. Typically (but not always), these signs are:

  • Diamond-shaped.
  • Colored:
    • Yellow, which denotes a warning sign.
    • Orange, which is specifically used for construction.

A warning sign, could be (but isn’t limited to):

  • A sharp turn.
  • Some rocky or slippery terrain.
  • A stoplight.
  • A railroad crossing.
  • The road narrowing or winding.

A construction sign, like a warning sign, signifies something you need to prepare for—the difference is these situations are temporary. A construction sign may indicate a:

  • Construction site or some road work up ahead.
  • Temporary speed limit that must be obeyed while people are working in the area.
  • Detour when the usual route is under construction.

Brief Glossary of Construction & Warning Signs

Let’s take a look at some common construction and warning sign examples:

  • DETOUR: Follow the arrow. The usual route is not accessible.
  • CONSTRUCTION ZONE: This area is under construction. Drive slowly and be extra careful.
  • STOP SIGN AHEAD: Get ready to stop.
  • 15 MPH: There’s a sharp turn coming up, slow down to the speed indicated and get ready to turn.
  • HILL WITH GRADE 8%: There is a steep decline on the road ahead.

Guide Signs

Guide signs are usually green horizontal rectangles. They let you know a bunch of useful things, such as:

  • The exits or streets coming up, and how far away they are.
  • What highway or interstate freeway you’re on. Interstate signs are usually blue and white and shaped like a shield.
  • How far away you are from a destination.

Brief Glossary of Guide Signs

Here are some guide signs you might see on the road:

  • AIRPORT: Follow this sign if you’re on your way to the airport.
  • EXIT NUMBER: This sign signifies the exit approaching. It’s often helpful if you’re using GPS for directions.
  • INTERSTATE NUMBER: This sign lets you know which freeway you’re on. Always good to know if you’re on the right one.

School Zone Signs

School zone signs are usually:

  • Pentagons.
  • Bright green or orange.

They let you know when you’re in a school zone. It’s EXTREMELY important to drive slowly and pay close attention in these areas. Speeding or disobeying traffic laws typically have much stiffer fines and penalties when you’re in a school zone.

Brief Glossary of School Zone Signs

Here are some common school zone signs:

  • SCHOOL CROSSWALK AHEAD: There’s a pedestrian crosswalk ahead. Kids walk to and from school in this area, so keep your eyes peeled.
  • SCHOOL ZONE: When you see this sign on the road, be aware you’re near a school. Harsher penalties for a variety of convictions apply here.
  • SCHOOL SPEED LIMIT: DO NOT exceed this speed while you’re in the school zone. Otherwise, you’re likely to face a steep fine and penalty. Sometimes the speed limit only applies during certain hours. Consult your state’s driver handbook to find specifics.

Other Road Signs

Other signs of the road belong in other categories. These are:

  • Services.These signs are usually blue and rectangular. They may signify when a(n):
    • Area is wheelchair accessible.
    • Rest area or gas station is coming up.
    • Restaurant or lodging area is ahead.
  • Recreation.These friendly brown squares might tell you where there’s a:
    • Bathroom.
    • Picnic area.
    • Hiking or skiing trail.
  • Incident Management.These coral signs are usually diamond-shaped and will let you know when:
    • There’s an accident or emergency scene ahead.
    • A lane or exit is closed.

Brief Glossary of Other Road Signs

Take a look at these common signs you might see on the road or in a parking lot:

  • PICNIC TABLE (recreation): This a picnic area. If the mood strikes you, find a table and eat a snack.
  • FORK AND KNIFE (services): Hungry? Take this exit and get your grub on.
  • ACCIDENT INVESTIGATION 1000 FT (incident management): Get ready to slow down or stop, there’s some investigating going on.
  • MOTOR HOME (recreation): Pull your RV up here and take care of your facility-related needs.
  • REST AREA (services): If your eyelids are getting heavy, pull in here and get some rest.
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