Novel signs around the UK

Following on from our article last week about those curious signs in Southend, Ronnie Cohen, one of our regular readers, now reports on a few others that have attracted his attention.

We are all familiar with the muddle that has developed over several decades as successive British governments avoided completing the change to the metric system. This is reflected in muddled signage, both public and private.

Examples of incorrect signage on public highways were highlighted in UKMA’s Vehicle Dimensions Signs Report, which may be downloaded here:

As mentioned in the previous article, signs that do not conform to the Traffic Signs Regulations and General Directions (TSRGD) are, by definition, not traffic signs and require alternative authorisation. They are then subject to control only in the interests of amenity and public safety. This occasionally leads to some creative and inventive signs as well as some confusing ones.

The two signs shown below fall into the former category. There do not conform to the TSRGD but are needed to meet health and safety requirements. Hence the obligatory use of metric measures.


Confusion reigns, however, in the next two images:


The first shows two circular signs, presumably both speed limits. One is clearly 5 miles per hour maximum speed. So is the top circular sign 10 mph or 10 km/h?

The second image shows a consequence of trying to run two measurement systems side-by-side – the possibility of conversion errors. A restriction of 1.9 metres is much lower than 8′-3″, so what actually is the clearance?

One of the daftest ideas to come out of the Department for Transport (DfT) recently is the use of minutes to express distances for cyclists (although it does discourage action by “Imperial vigilantes”).


What is the basis for the number of minutes to destinations? How much time are cyclists expected to wait at traffic lights or in heavy traffic? How fast is the cyclist – leisurely pace perhaps, or a fast one, but surely not Tour de France. Doubtless the answer is on the DfT website, somewhere.

And what is this about?


The use of “KPH” in the UK is strongly influenced by the use of “mph” but is an incorrect symbol for kilometres per hour which should be “km/h”. If we stopped using “mph”, perhaps we would be less likely to use “kph”.

These are a few examples of novel signs encountered by just one of our readers. You will probably know of others.

So clearly there are problems with the measurement units used on signage in Britain, both public and private, indicated by:

  • inconsistencies in private signs like those in this article;
  • the proliferation of official types of signs and their incorrect application, as noted in UKMA’s Vehicle Dimension Signs Report;
  • the activities of “Imperial vigilantes”, an example of which was discussed in the previous article on Metric Views; and, not least,
  • the failure of the Traffic Signs Policy Review of 2008 to 2011 to achieve significant progress.

We are not suggesting that the adoption by the UK of a single, simple, logical and coherent measurement system, understood and used by all, would solve these problems overnight.

But it would certainly help.

32 thoughts on “Novel signs around the UK”

  1. The first thing that strikes me is that, on the sign showning “2.0 m/6 ft 6 ins”, it has taken only four spaces to express the metric information, yet it takes a full eight spaces to display the imperial information. Strictly speaking there should be a space between the metric figure and the symbol ‘m’, which would have made it five spaces. But then arguably there should be spaces between the figures ‘6’ and the abbreviations of feet and inches, but that would made the imperial information ten spaces long. Metric signage is invariably more precise and neater in appearance than imperial.


  2. I don’t understand the issue with using minutes for cycling / walking distances. Of course, it’ll be an average walking speed and some may take slightly longer and some slightly less.
    I wouldn’t personally see the benefit of having it in specific distance measurements as I, like many others, have no idea how fast I walk and so a sign which said “Museum 200m / 200yd / 4000 cubits” is actually less useful to me than one which gives a rough expression in minutes. If a sign says “Museum 5 mins” then I know it’ll probably take 5-7 mins to get there.
    The UK isn’t the only place to use this, that I know of – Marseille, Lisbon and Prague all employ similar ideas.
    At least a rough time estimate is miles better (sorry!) than and indication of however many furlongs or chains it is to the site of interest!


  3. This is a favourite of mine… tonnes and tons on the same sign!

    I first complained to Peterborough City Council about this around 10 years ago and spent a couple of years emailing them on-and-off before giving up. They did tell me at one point that the sign was due to be replaced and would be corrected but the original sign (and several others in the area) are still there.

    They did replace the actual weight limit roundel referred to here which also said “tons” on the sign… and also a lot of local “lorry ban” signs in Peterborough itself which also used the word “tons” – though in that case instead of simply putting a sticker over “ons” to leave “t” actually put “T” stickers over them instead (the “t” variation had already been authorised by the DfT by this point in time.)


  4. I agree with Charlie. I also don’t see the benefit of having distances shown in units of distance.

    In fact, I think the idea of using minutes is so good that it should be extended to all road signs too. Knowing how many minutes it will take to where I’m driving is more useful than signs with distances on them.


  5. Talking about muddle – this article sure is confusing!

    It doesn’t make clear which of those signs are on public highways and supposed to be “road signs” and which are subject to the TSRGD, if any. Presumably signs which are on private property, which all but the cycle route signs here seem to be, are not subject to the TSRGD, so the commentary is all nonsense.

    Frankly, I’m not sure what point this article is trying to make. Can we have clarification please.


  6. @Wally

    I would disagree for all signs, the main difference being for road signs is that one is capable of seeing one’s current speed easily, unlike walking.

    When driving you can see the speedometer saying, for example, 100km/h and the distance sign ahead of you says it’s 140kms to your destination then you will know your journey will take 1.4hrs, or about 1hr 25mins. Having road signs with minutes would be problematic in the event of a changing of the speed limit as well, whereas for walking and cycling, none of these issues present themselves.


  7. I think the article makes a good point about the confusion of usage in the UK. I think it would be better for all if the UK followed the good advice in the Magna Carta and had just one measure for road and allied signs.


  8. @Charlie
    You are incorrect. Cycle routes throughout Prague, as is the case with all other cities on the continent that I have cycled in, are sign-posted clearly in multiples of 100m, and are shown in kilometres to one decimal place (check out the yellow finger post signs in the link below).,14.492273,3a,45.2y,51.41h,82.19t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1sdjHMkCppqvJ5VoAuCIfzeQ!2e0!7i13312!8i6656

    As a keen cyclist, distances in “mins” are meaningless to me. I have no idea whether a “min” is the time taken by a fast cyclist, or a slow-pedalling commuter keen not to work up a sweat, or whether it takes into account steep inclines. Obviously, prevailing wind always affects actual journey times anyway.

    Like many people, I find it difficult to visualise a mile (and hence multiples and submultiples of a mile are not easy to visualise either). Whereas it is easy to visual 100m, and distances signed in multiples of 100m (shown as kilometres to one decimal place) are very useful.

    It is disappointing that cycle routes continue to not be signed in kilometres, as per the international norm. It is also unhelpful and confusing to now have a muddle of different routes signed in different units, neither of which are compatible with the kilometre grid used by OS maps.


  9. @Charlie P

    The first two signs were found on public roads. The third one, with the two circular signs, can be found outside Mill Hill Broadway Thameslink station. The fourth sign, with the conflicting height warnings, is in the City of London. The last sign that shows the painted 10 KPH sign was found on a public road as well.

    Given the bewildering choice of permitted designs for restriction signs, and the resulting confusion, it is not surprising that some land owners and highway authorities come up with signs that do not conform to the TSRGD.

    This article shows how the UK measurement muddle has led to the UK signage muddle, with different designs, and, in my opinion, odd use of measurement units (e.g. using time to express cycling distances).

    I hope that clarifies matters.


  10. Sorry folks for not posting a picture, but there are a number of road signs on the A20 Jubilee Way going down the steep incline to Dover port.
    The signs indicate the location of runaway vehicle escape lanes, these have been very thoughtfully signed in various foreign languages given the very large amount of foreign trucks using this road, however the distance to these escape lanes is indicated in y d s .
    I wonder if a driver of a runaway truck needing quickly to read the sign in his own language would know what 100 y d s is? When metres can be understood by the entire world.


  11. @Ronnie Cohen
    You say:

    1. “The first two signs were found on public roads.”

    The first is on supermarket land – private land. The second in a private car park.

    2. “The third one, with the two circular signs, can be found outside Mill Hill Broadway Thameslink station.”

    Outside, or inside the private property of the station?

    3. “The fourth sign, with the conflicting height warnings, is in the City of London.”

    But not on a public highway.

    4. ” The last sign that shows the painted 10 KPH sign was found on a public road as well.”

    An unadopted private road? Or are you claiming the local authority provided or authorised that amateurish home-made sign?

    “Public road” usually means “public highway”, that is: roads which are maintained by a local authority or the Highways Agency – in England at least. Those roads are subject to the TSRGD. On the other hand, owners of roads on private property, such as in supermarket car parks, railway stations, council car parks, etc. can erect signs of their own design. You only have to see some of the weird signs used on the roads inside motorway service stations (roads which are designed to be used by ordinary motorists) to see evidence of that (examples: round slow sign, round two-way traffic sign, speed limit sign with m.p.h. explicitly given, round give-way sign).


  12. @Charlie P
    There, you knew all the answers anyway!

    The heading of this article is: – “Novel signs around the UK”
    Now, according to my understanding of the English language, that means it is about novel signs in UK. So far so good.
    It does not say it is about road signs, nor private signs, nor official signs. It is novel signs, pure and (very) simple.


  13. @Charlie P
    I understand the point you are making about public and private roads. This article is about a real issue with unauthorised signs, which is described in depth in the UKMA Vehicle Dimension Signs Report. The cover page of that report shows 18 different designs for height, width and length restriction signs in the UK whereas other countries just use 3 restriction signs (1 for height, 1 for width and 1 for length).

    The measurement muddle we face in the UK is a major contributing factor to the large number of permitted restriction signs. This leads to confusion. As a result, unauthorised signs end up on our roads. Also, the need to accommodate two measurement systems on the same signs with limited space sometimes leads to local authorities inventing their own restriction signs.

    The issue of muddled signage has been discussed in several Metric Views articles, including this article and the last one.


  14. @Charlie P
    Another point I would add is that the authorities often put up verbose signs when a pictogram would serve the same purpose. Advantages of pictograms are that they are normally require smaller signs and need no translation. Sometimes, unecessary words or abbreviations appear on signs (e.g. “mgw” for maximum gross weight for weight limit signs).


  15. Ronnie:

    Everything you say is of course absolutely correct – but unfortunately totally wasted on trying to inject some knowledge and even common sense into those who prefer two systems of measurement to one, many of whom just like to wind us all up in their obsession with keeping Britain mired in medieval units of measurement, and no amount of reasoned and logical argument is going to change that mindset.


  16. @Ronnie Cohen
    What do you mean by “unauthorised signs” in the context of private roads? The landowner can erect whatever signs they want (subject to the normal planning regs, etc) can’t they? And surely the TSRGD only apply to signs on public highways (ie NOT on private roads) , don’t they? Do I need to comply with the TSRGD when erecting a “Santa Land Here” sign on my private drive at Christmas time? As far as I can tell, all the signs pictured above are on private roads, so outside the scope of the TGRGD.

    I agree with you that pictograms, especially internationally recognised ones, are better than screeds of text on public highway signs.


  17. @Charlie P
    The site with the two circular speed limit signs were by Mill Hill Broadway station where there are roads with bus stops and places for taxis and cars to pick up and drop off passengers. I am not sure whether these roads are public and private roads. However, I found the “10 KPH” sign painted on a public road.

    Last night, I was walking home and I found 3 non-standard, presumably unauthorised signs, on the public roads in my local area. I still have the pictures of them on my camera. One was a restriction sign with the message “CAUTION 7′ 0″ Width Restriction 273 yds ahead”, another with the message “NEW ROUNDABOUT AHEAD” and a third with the message “WATCH YOUR SPEED 30 M.P.H. LIMIT”. The one relating to the roundabout differed from the standard pictograms on the other roads leading to same roundabout. In all these cases, the use of the standard circular signs for speed limits, width restrictions and roundabouts would have served the same purpose.

    If I can find a few in my local area without having to go out of my way to look for them, there must be many other non-standard signs on our public roads that do not conform to the TSRGD.


  18. The signs I referred to in my previous comment can be found in Armitage Road, Wayside and Dunstan Road (by the junction with The Vale) in Golders Green.


  19. @Ronnie Cohen: You should be quite pleased as 273 yd is 250 metres. Not that giving a distance to the nearest yard (100- or 10-yd resolution is mandated, depending upon total distance) is authorised, or even legal, as regulations concerning the use of measures apply to all roadways TO WHICH THE PUBLIC HAS ACCESS, not just public roadways. Therefore signs in car parks, filling stations are also subject to T.S.R.G.D. guidelines, although certainly some leeway can be granted as to font size and spacing. Using unauthorised units, such as ‘250 m’ unless the distance is in miles, is no more valid on private roadways than public ones.


  20. @ARM If you’re that concerned about signs on “roadways to which the public have access” perhaps you should also be addressing the supermarkets and motorway service stations who use signs on their land which bear little or no resemblance to anything in TSRGD and are clearly put together by company marketing departments to reflect a corporate image. These, in my mind, pose more of a danger to public safety that any sign showing metric measurements, whether legal or not.

    But then I guess when the unit of measurement meets your specification then it doesn’t really matter if the sign complies with any other rule or not.


  21. @BrianAC: We congratulate you on applying the same pedanticism to SI ‘symbols’ as to the English language. As T.S.R.G.D. is an abbreviation (or perhaps we could hold a conference, say at the Bastille, and ‘refine’ that and call it a ‘symbol) for ‘Traffic Signs Regulations and General Directions,’ the guidelines contained therein, you should be pleased to hear, are legally binding.

    @Alex: While we grant that you are technically correct, and could, we assume, successfully defend a case where, say, you pulled down or obscureda Tesco height restriction sign for utilising the wrong fontN to what end?

    ‘These, in my mind, pose more of a danger to public safety that any sign showing metric measurements, whether legal or not.’ Would you care to explain, or provide factual basis as to how, outside of your mind, a Tesco-themed sign, or a service station sign that uses the same colour ink as their logo in any way endangers the motorist or pedestrian, as opposed to, say, an unauthorised distance in metres?


  22. @ ARM
    I only asked a simple question, and I did not ask you, so why the aggressive answer?

    Can someone sensible give me a more intelligent answer? How does a guideline become a law? Is it a guide or it is a requirement?


  23. @ARM It’s quite simple… if we use a standardised set of signs then it’s more likely people will understand them. If people go off and make their own for no other reason than to fit into a corporate identity then it’s really not that far removed from councils who make up their own signs through lack of clear and proper guidance from the relevant authorities.

    I’ve driven in many other countries, both in Europe and North America and the one thing I notice is that signs on private land usually follow the same design as those used on public roads. If you see a speed, height, width or length limit you immediately know what it is. In this country there is such a hotchpotch even on the public highways – some councils have been told to remove speed limit signs that had a round yellow border along with the red one, some replaced the red border with a green border, neither has legal force yet they still exist and quite possibly confuse too. Asda and Welcome Break replace the red with green and blue respectively, a speed on a blue background is supposed to indicate a minimum yet in this context it turns out to be a maximum. This DOES cause confusion and it is no different to signs with multiple units of measure where we often see conversion being done incorrectly – if you have a little knowledge of both units how do you know which one is right? If you only know metric who is responsible if you drive past and it turns out that is wrong?

    I’m a great fan of the term K.I.S.S. Keep It Simple, Stupid. Stick to the same standards as much as possible and you reduce the chance of confusion or error. You also reduce the risk of injury or death through misunderstanding.

    When safety is involved personal choice is not a factor, it’s what the most people will understand with the least explanation that is important.


  24. @M Thank you for that clarification.
    It was just a simple error of wording then.


  25. @Ronnie Cohen

    I’m lost and confused now in the ever increasing muddle of this article and the subsequent comments.

    We still haven’t seen an explanation for what an “unauthorised” sign is in the context of private roads. Who has to authorise my “Santa Land Here” sign?

    Even for public highways it’s not clear as to which signs need authorising, and by whom. Do road name signs have to be authorised, or the place name signs at the entry points to Cities/Towns/Villages?

    I smell yet another logical fallacy being used, “argument by repetition” (argumentum ad nauseam) perhaps, in place of any good supporting evidence. To try to trick or fool readers into believing there is a case to be answered here?


  26. @Charlie P
    It was ARM that raised the subject of “unauthorised” in the context of private roads. ARM said, “Using unauthorised units, such as ’250 m’ unless the distance is in miles, is no more valid on private roadways than public ones.” Perhaps you should address your question to ARM.

    If you are serious about wanting Santa to land on your private property, your query is probably best dealt with by the Civil Aviation Authority, rather than it being a road signs issue.

    The original article was self explanatory. The pictures speak for themselves. Road signs in this country can be awfully muddled without a single measurement system.

    The refusal to adopt standard metric units on road signs, and the realisation that cycle signs in miles are not leading to the government’s desire for increased cycle usage, has lead even the Department of Transport to invent novel signs with distances shown in “cycle-minutes” – a measurement unit almost unique to cycle routes.

    What is your opinion? Don’t you think signs are more muddled when more than one measurement system is used? 95% of the world have already chosen metric-only road signs as the best way to avoid muddled road signage.


  27. @CharlieP:

    “… “argument by repetition” (argumentum ad nauseam)”

    I know exactly what you mean.


  28. @CharlieP:

    “… “argument by repetition” (argumentum ad nauseam)”

    I know exactly what you mean.


  29. @Peter K
    On the subject of “unauthorised”.
    I was commenting on Ronnie Cohen’s article and his subsequent comments. The article shows mainly photos of signs on private roads and no apparent distinction is made between them and official road signs on public highways.

    There are still unanswered questions.
    1. Under what circumstances do signs currently need to be authorised?
    2. Who has to authorise those signs?
    We need the answers to progress the debate intelligently.


  30. A step in the right direction might be to get the correct abbreviations for Imperial measure.
    inches – in
    feet – ft
    yards – yd
    miles – mi
    ounces – oz
    pounds – lb
    stones – ??
    Then there’s time; seconds, minutes, hours. But obviously these are not metric terms.
    But you know what they say, ignorance is Brit.
    So hate it and leave it, British pals. You know you will eventually.


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