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Interesting Facts about European Signs for Traffic Control

At one time, the appearance of European signs for traffic control varied widely from one country to the next.  That changed in 1968, with the signing of the Vienna Convention on Road Signs and Signals, which created a common standard for the 31 signees.  The overriding design principle is that colors and shapes should work together to convey information to drivers.  Here are some of the guidelines used:

• Triangular shapes with a white or yellow background are used to warn drivers of potential dangers (diamond shapes are also allowed for this purpose, but they are rarely used).  For example, triangular signs with a white background and red border indicate construction zones, animal crossings, and slippery roads.

• Prohibition signs are round with a red border.  Some examples include ones banning large trucks, bicycles, or pedestrians.

• European signs showing general information are rectangular.  Examples include: signs showing what nation the driver is in, the type of road they are on, and notifications of approaching tunnels.

• Directional signs are for the most part unregulated and vary across Europe.  However, the Convention standards do mandate that motorways use either white-on-green or white-on-blue.  Hungary once used white-on-green, but changed to white-on-blue in the early 2000s.

Some signs, such as ones signifying “stop,” are almost always found in English.  Bilingual messages are common as well.  For example, Wales has signs in both Welsh and English, and Finland’s markings are in Finnish and Swedish.

The metric system is used almost universally on European road signage.  An exception is the United Kingdom, where distances are shown in miles.  The Republic of Ireland also has some signs erected prior to 1977 that use mileage indicators.

Typefaces used on road signs differ across the continent.  The UK uses two: transport medium and transport heavy.  The Dutch have historically used the same typeface found in the United States, though that has changed somewhat since 1997.  As transportation needs evolve, signage standards will adapt to meet new challenges.