Examples include lane widths, line markings, road studs, traffic cones and even lamp-post separation, but perhaps the most important and familiar elements are road signs.

The earliest road signs were Roman milestones, giving distances or directions to important locations. These were followed by directional signs in towns and cities of the Middle Ages. The growth of cycling in the late 19th century meant that longer distances became achievable by more people, with signs therefore becoming important to guide riders on unfamiliar roads. The advent of automobiles stepped up the need to provide information to road users to help improve safety as crashes were far more likely to have serious consequences.

In the first half of the twentieth century, UK road signs emerged in a rather uncoordinated manner led by motoring organisations. The Road Traffic Act 1930 laid down standardised specifications for their design but the outbreak of World War II led to navigational signs being removed as part of the preparations for a potential invasion. Thereafter, their replacements in the 1950s saw the introduction of stick-on reflective plastics applied to aluminium sheets rather than cast metal signs.

The appointment of graphic designers Jock Kinneir and Margaret Calvert in 1957 to lead the refresh of road signs saw the introduction of a systematic approach to sign design that persists today. For example, with cars capable of travelling at high speeds for extended periods on the nascent motorway network, Kinneir and Calvert took a scientific approach to sign readability, ensuring the size and spacing of text on signs would be legible at speed and from sufficient distance for drivers to make timely and safe decisions about driving behaviour. Road signs would become much more consistent nationwide such that a driver travelling from Loch Ness in Scotland to Lizard Point in Cornwall would understand the signs denoting the configuration of a roundabout, roadworks ahead or a school nearby equally well throughout their journey. This means roads are easier to comprehend and results in safer driving behaviour. Not only that but the signs themselves have an aesthetically pleasing quality that perhaps means both that drivers are more likely to take notice of their guidance and that residents who see them everyday are less likely to be offended by their presence.

Signs communicate relevant information to a driver but technology is changing this requirement. Sat-nav systems offer drivers directional guidance without navigation signs. Going further, vehicles equipped with automated driving systems may not need road signs since they are likely to have onboard maps, which may already contain the information that such signs convey. However, even when automated vehicles emerge, it is likely that they will be sharing roads with human road users for many years and while navigation systems can provide drivers with information, they can’t replace the immediacy of relevant information physically presented in the visual field of the driver. And let’s not forget that not all road users have or use such technologies for every journey. The work of road safety heroes, Jock Kinneir and Margaret Calvert seems set to be with us for many decades to come.

This blog is published for Road Safety Week 2021 in celebration of the road safety heroes who help us make safe and healthy journeys and support people after road crashes. Click here to find out more and sign up to take part.

771 Nick Reed

Nick Reed

Founder, Reed Mobility