Road Sign Meanings Made Easy

by Jim Thompson | Last Updated: January 11, 2021

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Road signs 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!

Road Sign Types

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

Regulatory – These signs indicate or reinforce traffic requirements, regulations or laws. These ordinances may apply at all times or can be specific for the location of the sign.

Warning – These signs indicate a hazard or obstacle that may not be readily apparent to drivers.

Informational – These signs provide drivers with details about things such as position, direction or nearby resources.

Prohibitory – These signs inform drivers of restrictions of certain maneuvers in the vicinity of the sign.

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…

stop sign

8 sides

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

school zone signs shape

5 sides

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

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

Horizontal rectangles are typically used for informational signs.

highway sign

Vertical rectangles are typically used for regulatory signs.

speed limit sign

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

hospital road sign no right turn sign

Diamonds are used for warning signs.

warning signs are what color

   

3 sides – Three-sided traffic signs take two forms:

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

yield sign

   

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

   pennant sign

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

round sign shape

But What about Road Sign Colors?

Besides shape, colors can also give clues as to a road sign’s meaning.

Red – The color red is used to indicate prohibition. A stop sign means you can’t go any more. 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:

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

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

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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.

Orange – The 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.

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

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Blue –  The 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!

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Brown – Brown 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.

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At the End of the Day, It All Comes Down to Road Sign 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!