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Road Signs Of The World

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STOP in the United Arab Emirates

The first road signs

Road signs have been around about as long as roads have, or ever since rough paths wound through the countryside. The very first road signs were simple piles of stones (‘milestones') that would indicate a distance or a direction.

The Romans made these a whole lot fancier by building stone columns, showing the distance back to Rome. Road signs that gave directions towards key towns became more common in the Middle Ages.

The standardized, geometric shapes that we now see along highways and streets came much later. And these signs, if you stop to think about them, are pretty odd things. Imagine if some alien life-form came to visit from another planet – what would they make of the seemingly random triangles, circles, and even octagons that we like to put on top of sticks?



Road signs of the world.................(2457.jpg)Thank travelers for road signs

Logically enough, it was the presence of tourists that prompted the development of easily understandable road signs. The first plans to standardize road signs came out of the first International Road Congress, held in Paris in 1908, just a century ago.

In the USA, the Bureau of Public Roads also realized they should standardize signs that had been put up in different states by various automobile clubs, and developed signs that could be understood by illiterate drivers.

In more recent times, the 1968 Vienna Convention on Road Signs and Signals gave the main guidelines for what we see today. Because of these decisions, Give Way or Yield signs throughout the world are made with an upside-down red triangle on a white or yellow background.

But standardization only goes so far. A Give Way sign in Europe might be blank, it may say ‘YIELD' in the US, ‘GIVE WAY' in Britain, feature a Chinese character in Hong Kong and in Ireland use the Gaelic words ‘géill slí'. Yet most of us would recognize what that triangle was telling us. And that's the magic of modern road signs.


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No bullocks in India

Design standards

For something that we see every day and don't think twice about, there's a whole depth to road sign design that might surprise you. Let's start with the colors: for example, nobody would expect to see a ‘STOP' sign that was anything other than red and white. This color combination shows that it's an urgent sign that must be obeyed, but also makes it highly visible.

In many countries, informational road signs that give directions, distances or place names are often green with white letters.

Size and shape are also important factors. The road sign conventions in force today regulate these factors, for example stating that a STOP sign should be between 0.6 and 0.9 meters in width; and although most of us imagine it in the shape of an octagon, it's also permissible to use a circle.

Languages are also an issue. English seems to have become the de facto international language of the road, so many countries use STOP even when the word is different in their language. Other places use their own word, and some put up bilingual signs, especially where the local language is likely to be unreadable to tourists.


Road signs of the world.................(2458.jpg)A wildlife tour

As well as providing international visitors with some familiar-looking commands and directions, road signs can also give hints about the cultural wealth of a country.

Wherever you travel, take a look at the animal warning signs. In Okinawa, Japan, an animated-looking crab sign tells you that crabs will be crossing the road here, and you should take care not to drive over them.

If you are traveling around Australia, especially outside of the main cities, watch out for kangaroo signs. These are not to be taken lightly: hundreds of tourists driving carelessly at dawn or dusk have found themselves in nasty collisions with marsupials.

Road signs featuring animals are great targets for touching up or graffitiing by passing tourists or locals. Keep your eyes out for animals with human faces, freakish eyes or extra hair. In Tasmania, a cattle sign became a minor tourist attraction when someone drew a spaceship at the top of it, suggesting cows in the area are at risk of being abducted by aliens.


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A cheeky devil in Ireland

Keep watching for signs

So next time you take a trip, have a look at the road signs around you with new eyes. They're intended as an international means of communication. They give travelers all kinds of insights into the country or region they are visiting.

And they won't only make your trip faster or safer, but if you pay attention, road signs will also make your travels a lot more interesting.

Images: Indian bullock cart sign by Pratheepps



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