On some streets there are so many signs that you only have time to read them all when you’re stuck in a traffic jam. Common sense suggests that if drivers don’t have time to read them, they aren’t much use, but what might come as a surprise to many people is that quite a few aren’t even required by law. Don’t start blaming your local council though, like everything in UK government, it’s not as simple as that.
Local Traffic Authorities (LTA) are the bodies responsible for most lines and signs; in cities that’s the city or borough council, in smaller towns and rural areas it’s the county council. The exceptions are motorways and trunk roads which are controlled by the Department for Transport (DfT) in England and the devolved governments in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Regardless of which body is responsible, they are all bound by the DfT’s rules, which lay down which road markings and signs are obligatory and which are discretionary.
The essential ones are those that make drivers aware of Traffic Restriction Orders (TRO). It could be a speed limit, a one-way system, a ban on turning, or anything that restricts the driver’s freedom of movement.
There are situations where extra signs are a good idea, for example if a no entry sign on the end of a one-way street is hard to see until you are committed to the turn, then a no right (or left) turn sign some distance ahead of the junction might be helpful. The trouble is that requires an assessment of every junction from each direction, bearing in mind the sightlines of drivers of sports cars, motorbikes and trucks. So there’s a tendency to play safe and put advance warning signs on every junction. Over time signs multiply with advance warnings of every TRO required sign. Combine that with tourism signs, information about bus lanes, pedestrian routes and cycleways, and before long you need more posts and even overhead gantries to fit all the signs on.
Direction signs are another issue, information on where drivers at any particular junction are likely to want to go to next is hard to get, so the temptation is to put longer lists of places on bigger signs, until at some complex junctions you just don’t have time to read all the options. Excess signage isn’t just inconveniencing drivers, it’s costly to install and to maintain, which is probably why so many arenít clean or are obscured by overgrowing plants.
Many signs are illuminated, which adds considerably to the costs, as well as being a waste of energy. Sign posts take up space on pavements that are already too crowded and they add to the sense of urban blight. Signs are designed to be noticed and a street full of signs in clashing colours, jarring shapes and strident fonts forbidding things you were not going to do and pointing to places you don’t want to go is alienating, especially to new visitors.
In more rural areas, lines and signs are not just a blight on the landscape, they are often counter-productive. Putting white lines down the middle, and frequently along the edge, of a rural road makes it more motorist-friendly. Less the kind of place where you need to be on your guard for pedestrians, farm vehicles and livestock and more like an urban clearway. Advance warning signs before bends and chevrons on bends give drivers clues to the severity of the bend and help them negotiate it as quickly as possible. They don’t protect the walkers, farmers, cows and sheep that might be lurking around the corner. It’s safer for everyone if all the driver sees is a turn, a hedge, a fence, then has to slow down and figure out how to negotiate the bend safely.
None of this is particularly new, motorists have grumbled for years about lines and signs, but now there are signals that the DfT is trying to do something about it. A consultation document in 2009 resulted in a 2011 policy paper called ëSigning the way: traffic signs policy reviewí. With all the haste for which the civil service is famous for, this lead to the publication of ëTraffic Advisory Leaflet 01/13 Reducing Sign Clutterí in January 2013 and earlier this year to ëThe Traffic Signs Regulations and General Directions 2016 (TSRGD)í.
In the TSRGD circular, sent to all traffic authorities under Secretary of State for Transport Andrew Jones MP, he wrote: ìBy removing much of the cost and red tape associated with the delivery of traffic management solutions, and by broadening the range of available information on traffic signs, road users will feel the benefit sooner in terms of reduced congestion, improved road safety and clear and succinct signing ñ thus benefiting the wider economy. We have stripped out the rules that contributed to the proliferation of traffic signs, providing a pragmatic regulatory regime that keeps the message to the minimum necessary, without distracting road users and spoiling the environment.î
Removing the legal necessity for some signs doesn’t of course mean they will disappear, the Reducing Sign Clutter leaflet says: ìLocal authorities should consider auditing their traffic signs, traffic signals and road markings on a regular basis.î
Current austerity measures mean that local authorities rarely do anything that is not compulsory. Something they should consider isn’t likely to happen without considerable pressure. They may well find it easier to leave lines and signs in-situ, even maintain them and replace them, rather than carry out an audit and set about removing the unnecessary ones. The obvious time to remove lines is when a road is resurfaced, but the work is usually contracted, and the contractor’s default is to note all the existing lines, and reinstate them after surfacing work.
Maybe one of the motoring organisations would like to set up an Unnecessary Lines and Signs online reporting system so that individuals can tell local authorities what they think.