Road Signs

11 Conversations

You've been driving in this country (UK) since you passed your test, and you've sussed the logic that is applied to road signs. Then you get a bit older, start going on holidays abroad, and you have to drive there. This is when you come up against a completely different logic.


In the USA (don't get paranoid, this isn't another Brit with a chip on his shoulder, it's just that I drove whilst over there this summer, so it's freshest in my mind), it seems that they tell you the way to somewhere AFTER you've gone through a junction or set of traffic lights. So, driving along Interstate 4 looking for Sanford Airport, you must leave the Interstate at what you hope is the correct Junction (exit to you in the US, more of this later), and then get confirmation that what you have just done is correct. It strikes me that it might be more useful for there to be a sign on the Interstate saying 'Sanford Airport next exit'. This also happens in France going round Paris. They seem to completely ignore Orly Airport, which is quite big, and lots of people who aren't Parisian use it.

Next, the US habit of putting 'Exit only' on signs. It's easy to miss the entrance to Walt Disney World because you drive past a sign that says 'Walt Disney World exit only'. This actually translates as 'Walt Disney World this way'. Well, you don't want to leave Walt Disney World, do you? You want to go in, so you naturally look for a sign that says 'Walt Disney World entrance'.

The Americans also have small white and insignificant speed limit signs, so it's easy to break the speed limit without knowing it (this may not be accidental). UK speed limit signs are about 2' 6" across with a nice big red border (However, if you're in a long stretch of road with the same speed limit, you will see smaller 'repeater' signs that are only about 1' across.)

A concept that is odd for those who haven't encountered it before; in the US and Canada (except for New York City and the Province of Quebec (policy currently under revision)), as long as there is no sign specifically forbidding it, you are allowed to make a right turn on a red light.

Here is how to proceed:

  1. Approach intersection where you plan to turn right.
  2. Notice the light is red.
  3. Stop.
  4. Look all around.
  5. If the coast is clear, go ahead and turn right.

In Michigan, left turns onto or off big roads are often not allowed (I know this isn't strictly anything to do with signs, but I think it's worth a mention) but you are given many opportunities to make U-turns on these self-same big roads. So, turning left can involve one of two choices:

Choice 1
(usually for when you're on a big road going onto a smaller road) Get into the left lane. Go straight past the road you want. Take the next U-turn. Turn right at the road you wanted. You're where you wanted to be.

Choice 2
(usually for when you're on a small road going onto a bigger road) Get into the right lane. Turn right at the road you want, cutting across traffic lanes until you're in the left-most lane and can take the U-turn (you typically have approx. 100 ft in which to accomplish this manoeuvre). Take the U-turn and go straight through the intersection. You're where you wanted to be.


This is more subtle. They drive on the same side of the road as us, so you automatically think that everything else is the same, too. And so it is, mostly. The best one that catches you out is that the speed limit signs are in MPH, but the distances are in kilometres. HOWEVER, on the older signs, the distances are still in miles. A rule of thumb here is if you find yourself thinking "Wow!, I'm cracking on a bit.", then the distances you've been seeing are in Km

Irish road signs are unique in that they enable the driver to get lost in two different languages (you tend not to get lost with Welsh signs - ignore all the 'l's in the upper name and go for the one underneath it and you'll be fine. Just don't go too far under Neath, or you'll end up in the Bristol Channel - ha ha ha).

The directional indication is usually in the form of a pointed end to the road sign. However, the signs are usually mounted so as to enable them to swivel and the directional component cannot be trusted.

It is quite possible, and in fact common, to pass a road sign in Ireland saying 'Killmacud, 2 Miles', and then pass a sign 1 mile down the road indicating that the same location is in fact 3 miles away. Half a mile down the road after this second sign is the most probable location of your destination, so be sure to stop and confirm this with the locals. However, one thing for us ignorant Saxons to remember is that there seems to be no hard and fast rule for pronouncing Irish words, so it's impossible for us to stop and ask the way to anywhere. Is 'An Gleanngarbh' pronounced 'Glengarriff' or not? For all I know 'Baile Atha Cliath' might actually be pronounced 'Dublin'.

Another unusual Irish road sign phenomenon is the naming convention. This involves spelling the location in a wide variety of ways on road signs in parallel. A good example is Ahiohill (the correct spelling), a small town in the Western region of County Cork. This can be seen on a number of different road signs spelt as 'Agyhwiohuill', 'Ahohiall', 'Arioheal', etc. A rule of thumb in Ireland is that if the place names on the signs all contain roughly the same number of vowels, then they will lead you to the same place.

Be sure to be wary also of speed limit signs (don't forget, they are mph and not km/h). There is no warning of a change in the limit; the limit changes directly after passing that sign. In the most severe of cases, speed limit signs are placed directly around a bend in the road, and hence impossible to see. These latter types are usually accompanied by a couple of bored police officers with a radar gun.

Above all, please take special note of any signs named 'Xing' with pictures of Leprechauns beneath them. These wonderful creatures are part of the Irish cultural heritage and a dim view will be taken of the little people being destroyed by careless driving.


They have a sign that is just a question mark. Any ideas as to what it means anyone?


They tell you to go straight on in a completely different way. In the UK, when you approach a junction, if your destination is straight on, this is signified by and arrow pointing up next to the place name you're interested in. In France, when you approach a junction (note for US sign-placing-types: 'when you APPROACH a junction'. You see, even the French do it the same way as us.), the arrow points to the side. To UK drivers this means 'make a turn in the direction of the arrow', so you end up miles out of your way before you notice the absence of the place you're heading for on the sign posts. You only really suss this one when you're driving along one of those dead straight, flat roads with no junctions at all, and you go past a sign that seems to be telling you to turn left to get to Lyons (or wherever).


The road signs are based on French, but with a couple of interesting additions:

A sort of exclamation mark with no dot. This means 'bridge'; more specifically, a single-lane bridge made of tree trunks. The correct behaviour when you meet one of these is to see if any vehicle is coming the other way and assess its relative size as compared to your own. This gives you the priority rule - bigger has priority. Now barrel along across the bridge at absolutely full pelt, or nerves will take over and you will fall off.

The word 'bou' on a square sign. This means 'mud on the road', but as the majority of roads are not paved and Cameroon has about the third or fourth highest annual rainfall in the world, these signs are largely unnecessary.


Canada is metric as far as distances and speeds are concerned.

A few tips for Canadian signs.

Background colour of sign:

Green - directions having to do with the roads. i.e., telling what road you're on, distances to locations, and visual guides to what kind of choices are coming up.

Blue (Quebec) or Brown (Ontario) - tourist sign.

White - legislation. i.e., speed limits, how they're enforced, littering, etc. On the 401 there are even big signs explaining the penalties for various speeds over the limit. Of course, when travelling 140k or higher, you don't really have the time to notice.

Exit location. This is important. In Canada (and the US in some places) you can have exits off the right-hand side of the road or the left-hand side of the road. This is actually indicated on the big signs over the road telling you how many kilometres are left to the exit. On top of the sign to either the left or the right will be a small tab with the exit number on it. In Quebec, these things are even highlighted in yellow. If the tab is on the left, the exit will be on the left. If the tab is on the right (the norm), the exit will be on the right.


The distances are in kilometres. It is thought that the speed limits are of the MPH variety.

Highway driving in Turkey is enjoyable and tends to be easy. It's the cities that are tricky.

Driving in Istanbul or Ankara is not for the faint-hearted. The road signs are not the clearest in the world, so take somebody fairly local with you so they can give you directions. Furthermore, make sure they know the area you will be driving in, because there are plenty of one-way streets where you can easily get lost. If you absolutely must do it on your own, make sure you know how your destination is spelled, how it's pronounced, and which neighbourhoods it's near, so you can spot it on signs and ask directions. If you need directions and the pedestrians aren't paying attention and you speak Turkish (that's the tricky bit), feel free to pull up next to a taxi driver and ask for directions. There are no figures available on the percentage of cabbies who speak English.

If you get extremely frustrated trying to find parking, and see some cones holding a spot in front of a corner store (a 'bakkal'), pause in front of the cones and nod and smile to the guys (there WILL be a group of these): they'll pull back the cones, and you may then park and grant them monetary compensation.


Here they have a sign that reads 'WRONG WAY!! GO BACK!'. These are placed on freeway exits facing away from the normal flow of traffic. If you don't do anything wrong you will never see this sign. Australia has a large number of tourists from Continental Europe and the US, and since they drive on the other side of the road to the Australians, there have been some incidents where a tourist has entered a freeway on the exit, and been hit head on at 100km/h.

Thanks to:

Duncan Jones (Spearcarrier)
The Cheese
The 5.5th Doctor (aka Shallow 15)

Special thanks to:


Bookmark on your Personal Space



Infinite Improbability Drive

Infinite Improbability Drive

Read a random Edited Entry


h2g2 is created by h2g2's users, who are members of the public. The views expressed are theirs and unless specifically stated are not those of the Not Panicking Ltd. Unlike Edited Entries, Entries have not been checked by an Editor. If you consider any Entry to be in breach of the site's House Rules, please register a complaint. For any other comments, please visit the Feedback page.

Write an Entry

"The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is a wholly remarkable book. It has been compiled and recompiled many times and under many different editorships. It contains contributions from countless numbers of travellers and researchers."

Write an entry
Read more