Road Signs and Markings Made Easy

by Jim Thompson | Last Updated: March 15, 2021

Road signs and markings are incredibly important to driving safely. They let you know how you are supposed to behave in a variety of different driving conditions. Turns out, if you aced shapes and colors in kindergarten, handling road signs should be a snap! Here’s a quick breakdown of traffic sign types and what the different road sign shapes and road sign colors mean. Learn these and you’ll know how you should be driving before you are even close enough to read the sign!

Whether you are an experienced driver or are just getting behind the wheel for the first time, check your road sign knowledge with this mini-quiz:

Get them all? Good for you! Feeling a little shaky? Read on!

Line Markings

The lines painted on the road offer quite a bit of information to you as a driver.

For instance, a single center line in the road indicates one-way traffic, and a double-striped center line in the road indicates two-way traffic. A continuous, unbroken line means that passing is not allowed, while a broken line (which looks like a series of dashes along the road) means that passing is allowed.

Note: In two-way traffic, if the line on your side of the road is a solid line, this means that passing other vehicles is not allowed for you, even if there is a broken line on the other side. On the contrary, a broken line–only when it’s on your side of the road–means that passing the cars in front of you is allowable as long as the road is clear. Be sure to check mirrors and ensure that you have even more room in front of you than you think is necessary before passing, and never pass on a curve or a hill when your view of oncoming traffic is limited or non-existent.

Thick, striped lines near an intersection often serve as a crosswalk. Always yield to pedestrians in the crosswalk!  

Road Sign Types

Most road signs employ specific shapes to communicate what you’re allowed to do and what the signs mean. Even without knowing how to read, it’s possible to understand driving instructions from the shapes of the signs on the side of the road.

There are many other types and shapes of road signs. The best way to learn them is to study the driver’s handbook you use to study for a licensing exam. Even if you took that exam years ago, brushing up on your road signs is an excellent idea. Make it a game. Test yourself after all this time to see if you could still pass the road sign examination. You may be surprised, and you may find that it makes driving safer and much easier!

By and large, traffic signs fall into the following categories:

To make things even easier, these four sign types can all be identified by two characteristics—shape and color.

Road Sign Shapes

The basic geometry used to identify sign shape relies on the number of sides the sign has. For example, if a sign has…

8 sided signs

stop sign

There’s only one sign it can be, the stop sign, and you probably have a pretty good idea of what to do here.

sided signs

school zone signs shape

Another one and done, a pentagon shape sign indicates the presence of a school zone, so keep an eye out for kids.

4 sided signs

There are many ways a four-sided sign can be oriented. These include both horizontal and vertical rectangular signs, squares and diamonds.

rectangular road signs

Horizontal rectangles are typically used for informational signs.

vertical rectangular traffic sign

Vertical rectangles are typically used for regulatory signs.

road sign colors
white road signs

Depending on the color, square signs can act as either of these sign types.

warning signs are what color

Diamonds are used for warning signs.

3 sided signs

Three-sided traffic signs take two forms:

triangle road sign

An upside down triangle indicates drivers must yield right-of-way to others.

pennant sign means no passing

Usually found on hills or curves, a pennant shaped sign indicates the presence of a no passing zone.

round sign shape

0 sided signs

circle sign means the presence of railroad tracks. Watch for trains and be ready for the uneven surface of crossing the tracks.

The Color Code

The rainbow has a beautiful place in human history and imagination. According to the Bible, it is a sign of God’s mercy and presence. It’s also considered the trail to a leprechaun-guarded pot of gold, according to Irish legend. And, it made the art of Lisa Frank possible.

Though not as glamorous, most of the colors of the rainbow are also useful to you as a driver and can convey information immediately.

RedThe color red is used to indicate prohibition. A stop sign means you can’t go anymore. A yield sign means you must surrender the right-of-way to others around you.

Sometimes sign code requires the use of red lettering as seen in signs like these:

Red is also the color used for the international “no” or “circle-slash” symbol in signs like these:

YellowYellow is used to indicate caution, both on traffic lights and warning signs.

Quick. What color is a yield sign? If you are like many, you have the picture of a yellow triangle in your head, but yield signs are actually red and white. Maybe it’s because yellow lights indicate caution that some drivers think that yield signs are yellow. While it’s true that yield signs used to be yellow, that hasn’t been the case since 1971.

OrangeThe color orange is restricted to construction zones. Textually, these signs may convey the same information as yellow warning signs, but the change in color communicates the increased potential danger to workers present and, in some cases, higher potential fines for violating the warning.

GreenThe color green is used for signs communicating location such as highway exit signs, street signs, and mile markers.

BlueThe color blue is used for informational signs, especially helpful for communicating services available at upcoming exits. These signs can be even more helpful if it’s been an hour or two since you finished that Big Gulp!

BrownBrown signs may be welcomed most by those who are tired of driving. This color is used to signify upcoming recreational areas. If you are ready to stretch your legs, unpack a picnic or see a little natural beauty, these are the signs for you.

At the End of the Day, Signs Come Down to Shape and Color

All of the color and shape conventions used on modern traffic signage and road markings all refer to the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices. This guide was first published in 1935, and there have been eight subsequent updates, the most recent in 2008. Prior to the publication of the MUTCD, design and erection of street signs was left to independent automobile clubs. These clubs were comprised in large part by owners of businesses found along a particular roadway. As you might imagine, these individuals were more interested in promoting their companies than in making driving less confusing. The result was, at best, a little chaotic.

Thankfully, road signs and markings nationwide must now conform to the standards set forth in the MUTCD. Even better, since the authors of the guide were a fairly clever bunch, all you need to get yourself safely and efficiently down the road is a simple understanding of shapes and colors!