Signs of Confusion?

The British have always been great travellers with some of the world’s most famous explorers hailing from our shores: Sir Francis Drake, Sir Walter Raleigh and Captain James Cook to name but a few who faced incredible dangers in uncharted territories with constant threats from disaster, disease, wild animals and hostile locals. It seems that Brits have been successful in reaching every corner of the globe (assuming that globes actually have corners!) but there is one peril that these heroic globetrotters did not have to face but one that lies in wait for any unwary modern-day British traveller brave enough to venture from these sheltered isles. That danger arises from the apparent inability of the British to understand other countries’ road signs.

Of course any traveller needs to understand a little of the local lingo even if such knowledge is limited to STOP, LEFT and RIGHT but it seems that most confusion arises with the signs containing pictures or symbols. Although there have been moves towards standardisation of road signs for many years (a protocol to which the UK did not sign-up), there remains much national diversity and there are even some signs which have different meanings in different countries. This failure to understand, and consequently not to follow, the instructions given by these signs has been cited as one of main causes of accidents abroad and this fact has been recognised by overseas car-hire companies who are now imposing additional insurance requirements on British drivers who they regard as being a bad risk. This may slightly dent the pride of our usually well-respected motorists but insurance companies report that the countries from which the most accident claims originate are: Spain, France, Italy, Portugal and Australia. The latter, being an English speaking country, may be surprising and many visitors from the UK expect driving here to be just like at home, with the possible exception of a few signs showing Skippy bouncing across the road, and are not prepared for some of the unusual road signs. The Australian sign for “The Road Ahead Will Change” is a classic example of a sign where the image seems to bear no resemblance to the message it is purporting to convey. It seems that you really need to think Australian to fully understand the logic. Some of the Icelandic signs are also highly symbolic rather than pictorial so need to be carefully studied.

Both in the UK and overseas, there are also signs which are unlikely to have any relevance to the average motorist such as the prohibition of vehicles carrying explosives but the whole business of understanding other countries’ road signs is a matter which should be taken very seriously and some, such as those advising which roads are “priority routes”, inform drivers as to who has the right of way and abiding by this is almost as important as driving on the correct side of the road.

The most important thing is to recognise which signs are concerned with road safety and which are simply providing information about local facilities. In France for example a sign simply showing the letter é over a silhouette of a village church simply indicates the location of a stop-over village (Village Étape) and a single letter t indicates the toll booth location for season ticket holders. It may be some consolation to know that French drivers’ knowledge of some of these minor signs is not much better than that of UK drivers.

It should always be remembered that UK road signs are probably just as confusing to overseas visitors and we can only wonder what a Renault-driving Frenchman would do when confronted with a sign saying “FORD”.

So, whatever country is to be visited, some time should be taken to become familiar with that country’s road signs and, if it has been some time since a driving test was passed, it would do no harm at all to also study the latest UK road signs as their numbers also steadily rise. The realisation that most of the important overseas road signs are intuitive comes as something of a relief to those with limited language skills and the few which are symbolic rather than pictorial can easily be learnt. Driving in a safe and considerate manner should be no more difficult overseas than at home and will win the respect and appreciation of local motorists. It also enables such trips to be fully enjoyed, carrying on the British tradition of travel and exploration. Take a look at the coop’s infographic:

Road signs

You may also like...