Signs review disregards Welsh road users

The Department for Transport (DfT) is failing to address the needs of Welsh road users, and international traffic, when considering road sign designs in its Traffic Signs Policy Review.

Many UK road signs use improvised English language abbreviations and English language names for measurement units, in addition to extensive use of English text. This is despite the existence of internationally-recognised symbols, and standard units of measurement, which are already in use on road signs in the rest of the world.

This failure to use standard symbols and pictograms, compels Welsh traffic authorities to modify parochial English traffic sign designs, so that traffic signs in Wales can meet the requirement to be understood in both Welsh and English.

If traffic signs throughout the UK made maximum use of standard symbols and pictograms,  the majority of signs could be understood by drivers speaking any language, without additional translation.

With increased international traffic in recent years, one would expect that this aspect of traffic sign design would be given high priority in the current Traffic Signs Policy Review. However, some new road signs planned for introduction in 2010, will actually exacerbate the problem. For instance, the new cycle route directional sign, that gives distances using estimated journey times, does not use the standard symbols for hour (h) and minute (min), but uses improvised English language abbreviations instead. Consequently, a special bilingual version will be required when it is used in Wales.


Metric solution

The diagram below shows how simple the above cycle route sign would be if standard symbols and units of measurement were used.


All metric units of measurement have standard internationally-recognised symbols. This means, for example, that the ‘km’ symbol will be understood to mean ‘kilometre’ regardless of language.

Existing language-dependent signs can also be simplified by using standard symbols.


The use of yards is not compatible with the Welsh language.


The UK is the only country in the world that uses yards on road signs (the USA uses feet or metres).


Further examples of how current parochial traffic signs could be more widely-understood by using standard metric symbols can be seen on the UKMA website.

1968 Vienna Convention on Road Signs and Signals

The issue of designing signs for road users of different languages is not a new one, and was addressed many years ago by those countries, including the UK, that signed up to the 1968 Vienna Convention on Road Signs and Signals. This international treaty lays out the principles, and standard symbols, for road signs used throughout most of the world, and includes the following statement:

“The Contracting Parties,
Recognizing that international uniformity of road signs, signals and symbols and of road markings is necessary in order to facilitate international road traffic and to increase road safety,
Have agreed upon the following provisions:

The huge increase in international traffic over the past 40 years, and the modern needs of the Welsh language, should make the Vienna Convention even more relevant today, but it seems that the Traffic Signs Policy Review is not addressing this fundamental issue. So, if it is not going to be addressed in, what was described in September 2008 as, “the biggest review of British road signs for 40 years”, when will it be addressed?

Traffic Signs Policy Review

Details of the Traffic Signs Policy Review can be found at the following link

You can apply to join the sounding board, or comment directly using the following e-mail address

You can comment on the new journey-time cycle route sign, and other proposed amendments to traffic signs regulations, in the DfT consultation. Details of which can be found at the following link.

Other traffic sign issues that can be solved by using univerally understood symbols and units of measurement are described in UKMA’s leaflet Traffic Signs 2.0 . Free printed copies can be obtained by e-mailing .

9 thoughts on “Signs review disregards Welsh road users”

  1. I was talking to my 22 son recently about the yard/metre debate whan he admitted that he didn’t know if a yard was longer or shorter than a metre. There must be millions of people in this country in same position who have never had any pracitical experience of the yard. For the purposes of this signage review, replacing the yard with the metre would be an extremely sensible and simple thing to do, as the UKMA’s pictorials so grahically illustrate.

    Tim Bentley


  2. Has anyone in Wales, whether in government, public safety, or other areas of Welsh civic life provided feedback on this matter? I would imagine most persons in Wales would prefer to have the simpler, more readable signs on their roadways. Moreover, I suspect most inhabitants of Wales are more amenable to using metric since they do not have any particular attachment to anything “English”. (After all, who in Wales will forget the invasion by Edward I or the flooding of the Tryweryn valley?) However, since I’ve spent my entire life on this side of The Pond [i.e. the USA], can anyone confirm (or rebut) this notion?


  3. I hate to see bicycle signs in time rather than distance. Miles or kilometres would do for me, but as kilometres is the known measurement for cycle routes and what I’m used to when cycling, I’d prefer that. Anything but distance measured in time (it depends who’s cycling)! Ridiculous. For the mix of English and Welsh, if you’re not used to it in its current form, you’d have to get off your bike to read it.


  4. I foresee collisions between cyclists and pedestrians as the former try to understand what on earth the sign is all about as the latter stand beside it trying to make sense of it all.


  5. Mr D, is km the known measurement for cycle routes? I had a look on a site like Sustrans and the primary unit they use is miles. I have no idea which unit the pedestrian/cycle signs where I live use. Other cycling sites use a mix of mi and km.

    I wonder how much the first sign would cost, especially since the times are done four times to state one piece of information.


  6. I’m surprised that Wales does not use metres (m and km) on traffic signs.

    Apart from the more obvious reasons to use metres, the metre is also a much closer match to the old 40-inch Welsh yard (1.016m) than the 36-inch English yard (0.9144m) is.



  7. On a small matter of pedantry, the signs proposed above fall foul of the EU directive 80/181/EEC on two counts. Article 3.4 of the directive states “The indication expressed in a unit of measurement listed in Chapter I shall predominate. In particular, the indications expressed in units of measurement not listed in Chapter I shall be expressed in characters no larger than those of the corresponding indication in units listed in Chapter I”.

    The intenationally accepted symbols “min” and “h” are included in the EU’s list of acceptable units. The local units “mun” and “awr” are not and therefore may not predominate. In addition the directive staegts that “h”, not “hr” shall be the symbol used to denote “hours”. Also the directive implicitly implies that the “s” should not be used as a plural.

    IMHO, the best way to denote time representation is to write it as “1:15 h” etc.


  8. The EU Commission made it clear last year that they couldn’t care less what units the UK used on road signs.

    Hopefully those who object to English only signs will take on board the fact that ‘m’ is a symbol not an abbreviation for ‘metre’. Similarly with other SI units and the agreed symbols.

    If the recommendations in this article were taken up Welsh language minded people could just read ‘m’ as a symbol for llath and ‘km’ as 1000 llath etc.


  9. @Ezra Steinberg

    Clearly you’ve been living over that side of the pond for way too long (if you’ve ever lived eslewhere anyway). The vast majoirty of Welsh people are not racist against the English or everything ‘English’ (which is an American term for imperial anyway). England & Wales wouldn’t be in union otherwise.

    Seriously, Edward I? How long ago was that? Tryweryn, whether the right thing to do or not, had nothing to do with silly American views of English oppression over simple Welsh folk, though the insignificant minority or more extreme nationalist types will use it for that context.

    I agree with just using a single ‘m’ in metric though. Miles & llath just looks a bit silly really. We are slowly heading to metric. In England, there’s now small signs on the motorway which mark the location every 50m, so that the driver can tell the recovery services their exact location, when using a mobile phone. Not seen these in Wales yet, so the English must hate everything ‘English’ more than the Welsh do.


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