As drivers, especially those new to the big open road, road signs are going to be one of the most prevalent things you’ll need to pay attention to while driving – that is, of course, second to the other drivers on the road with you. Defensive driving skills are always the most important.
While those of us who’ve been driving for a while have figured out and learned what all the signs we see mean, the number of signs used can be a bit intimidating for a new driver. Yes, you learn them in your driver’s education courses, but we’ve taken it upon ourselves to list them all here, as well as an in-depth (or as in-depth as possible, as some are quite simple and require little explanation) description of their meaning to provide easy access for those wanting to study up on them a bit more.
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Road Sign Colors & What They Mean
Every road sign has a specific color associated with it. The color of road signs can immediately tell you what they are about. Here are the colors you may be asked about during your written driving exam:
Red – Signs which are red in color refer to situations where you must stop or yield. Obviously, stop signs and yield signs use the color red, but other signs such as do not enter and wrong way signs can also use red coloring. Other examples of road signs using red include no u-turn signs, no turn on red signs, and sometimes no parking signs.
Green – Green road signs are direction signs. This color is used for things like street signs (the names of streets), exit signs, mile markers, and signs showing you directions to a certain city or the distance to a specific place.
Blue – Signs that are blue in color are not regulatory signs. Instead, they display services for travelers. These signs are normally found on expressways and highways, directing motorists to where they can find places such as rest areas, tourist sites, hospitals, hotels, gas stations, restaurants, campgrounds, picnic areas, and other services commonly used by motorists.
Yellow – Yellow road signs are general warning signs to indicate potential hazards or changing road conditions ahead. For example, road signs that use the color Yellow may warn you that there is a narrow bridge ahead, a railroad crossing, a no-passing zone, curves in the roadway, a merge point, pedestrian crossing, a dead-end, an uneven surface, a hidden cross street, or any other number of potential hazards.
Fluorescent Yellow/Green – This color is relatively new on our roadways, but it is used for signs relating to pedestrians, bicycles, and school warning signs. They are increasingly being used for some constructions signs as well. This color is used because it is easier to see during foggy or rainy weather.
Orange – Orange road signs are usually temporary signs relating to road work, temporary traffic control, and maintenance warnings. When you see orange road signs, be sure to watch for workers on or near the roadway.
Brown – Similar to blue road signs, brown signs are not regulatory signs. These signs indicate areas of recreation and cultural points of interest. Brown road signs will mark or give directions towards historical sites, parks, picnic areas, and other recreational areas.
Road Sign Shapes And Their Meanings
Similar to different road sign colors, you can also tell what a road sign means by looking at its shape. Here are the standard shapes of road signs, along with what they mean:
Octagon – A road sign in the shape of an octagon will always be a stop sign. Come to a full stop at an intersection controlled by this sign. Stop at the marked stop line or before entering the crosswalk or before your vehicle enters the intersection. Let other vehicles or pedestrians pass if they are in your path.
Equilateral Triangle – This sign shape is used for yield signs. Yield the right of way. Slow down and let vehicles crossing your path go by. If necessary, stop before going ahead. If pedestrians are in or about to enter the crosswalk, stop until they have crossed the roadway, then proceed.
Pennant – This sign will be on the left-hand side of the road or highway. It warns you of a no-passing zone.
Diamond – Diamond shaped signs are used as warning signs. These signs alert you to special road hazards. Words or pictures on the sign will show you why you need to slow down or use extra caution.
Rectangle – These will be regulatory or guide signs. Vertical signs indicate what you should or should not do, such as speed limit signs. Horizontal signs give directions or information about services drivers may want.
Pentagon – A road sign in the shape of a pentagon will refer to a school crossing or school zone. The color of the sign may be yellow or florescent yellow/green.
Crossbuck – All railroad crossing signs are this shape and are placed at each crossing. Sometimes there is a number under the crossbuck which will show you how many sets of tracks there are.
Circle – This sign shape indicates a railroad crossing is ahead.
Standard Regulatory Signs
Let’s get into further detail about what standard regulatory signs are. You’ll see all over the road, pretty much no matter where you are. They include:
Stop – This sign, as you might have guessed, means you need to stop wherever you see one. They are almost always accompanied by a line across the road at which you should stop, and most areas require you come to a full and complete stop before proceeding.
Yield – This sign is meant to alert you to any upcoming hazards, road conditions, or oncoming traffic (there are signs which signal for you to yield prior to merging to avoid accidents). It means slow down, defer to oncoming traffic, stop if necessary, and proceed when it’s safe to do so. A flashing yellow light at an intersection serves for this purpose as well.
Speed Regulation Signs
These signs are designed to indicate the speed at which it is appropriate to go on a certain road. There are some that indicate a single speed, and some that indicate two speeds: the maximum allowed on a road, and the minimum allowed on a road. These may be changed under certain circumstances, such as road work or similar, and should be followed to maintain safety for all using the road.
Speed Limit – Indicates the maximum speed on a road for standard vehicles. This maximum speed indicates the safest maximum speed during ideal driving conditions.
Minimum Speed – Usually seen on highways and expressways, this sign indicates the minimum allowable speed during regularly flowing traffic.
Truck Speed – On some roadways, larger vehicles must abide by different speed limits. This sign indicates the maximum speed for larger trucks and vehicles.
Combination Speed – Indicates both the maximum and minimum speed for all vehicles on the road; most often used on highways and interstates to avoid collisions.
Turns And Lane Usage Signs
Just as the road itself is painted to indicate turning lanes and the like, there are signs to indicate where you can and can’t turn, u-turn, take a left turn into oncoming traffic, etc. These come in the form of:
No Right Turn – This sign is used to indicate a street that you can not turn right onto. Most often, you will see these in downtown areas.
No Left Turn – This sign is used to indicate a street that you can’t turn left onto. Again, most often seen in downtown areas.
No U-Turn – This indicates that a U-turn is not legal in an area where this sign is posted. Typically, it is because the area has too much traffic (for instance, oncoming traffic as well as traffic coming out of road-side shopping centers, etc.) to safely allow a U-turn.
Left Turn Only and Right Turn Only – These will usually be paired with the no-turn equivalent of its opposite sign.
Movement Regulation Signs
These signs will indicate moves a driver can make on any particular road, and for some, also indicate when to start a movement – usually in the case of roundabouts, where a certain lane can take you left or right. They are:
Do Not Pass – Indicates, as you might have guessed, that you can’t pass in an area where this is posted.
Pass With Care – This one indicates, as you probably guessed that it is an area where it’s safe to pass as long as you use common sense and caution.
Keep Right – This one means you should keep right. It is usually seen in areas where a divided median begins, or in construction areas.
Keep Left – The same as keep right, only now it’s left.
Selective Exclusion Signs
These signs will all indicate that you’re basically doing it wrong, or that you shouldn’t be where you are right now, if you’re where you shouldn’t be. Allow me to explain:
Do Not Enter – If you see this sign, it means you don’t belong there, and should probably stay out. Usually, it’ll be posted at the beginning of an exit that is meant to come out where you’re trying to go in but can also be used for other areas as well.
Wrong Way – Much like the ‘Do Not Enter’ sign, it indicates that you’re where you shouldn’t be. For example, you’ll see this sign posted on one-way roads facing away from flowing traffic. That way, if someone drives down a one-way road the wrong way, they will see this sign.
No Parking – This one means you can’t park wherever it is. Some no parking signs can be a bit confusing with different days and times shown. Be sure to read them carefully.
Emergency Vehicle Parking Only & Fire Lane – This sign will indicate that only emergency vehicles such as police vehicles, ambulances, and firetrucks can park in the area.
Road signs are the way the city, construction workers, and other people communicate with drivers. Knowing what these signs are and what they mean is crucial to being a good driver. Here is an overview of important road signs:
Know The Colors Of Road Signs
Road signs are color-coded as a way to help drivers understand what topic is being communicated. Here is a guide to the colors:
- Red: Stopping or danger
- Black And White: Regulations and laws
- Yellow: Warnings
- Green: Direction or place
- Blue: Motorist services such as gas, food, or hotels
- Brown: Recreational, historical, or scenic sites.
- Orange: Construction or road maintenance
Recognizing And Following Common Road Signs
Each color of the sign has a different variety of instructions. Here are how to follow the common signs for each color:
Red Road Signs
Stop sign: You must always stop at a stop sign. If there is a line painted on the roadway, you must stop before the line. Some stop signs will also have a smaller sign saying if it is a two way or an all way stop. You should completely stop your vehicle for at least two seconds, even if the intersection is clear.
Yield: A yield sign means you need to slow down and yield to any oncoming or cross traffic. Yield signs do not require that you come to a complete stop. Instead, it indicates that you must give the right of way. So, if you approach a yield sign and there is cross traffic, you must stop until the roadway is clear.
Do Not Enter: A do not enter sign means that traffic cannot drive on that road. It usually signals an exit or a one way road. Even though this sign is pretty clear, many people who are lost and aren’t familiar with the area tend to miss these signs and wind up the wrong way on a one-way road. Make sure you watch for these signs, especially in major cities with one-way streets.
No Parking: You cannot park your vehicle in the area designated by this sign. If you see a no parking sign, that doesn’t mean you can “just run in for a few minutes” or leave your hazard lights on. Many no parking signs will post certain hours that you may or may not park in a given location, so make sure you pay attention to the timeframes parking is allowed.
VIDEO: Why Are Stop Signs Red?
Black And White Road Signs
Speed Limit: Speed limit signs will post the maximum allowable speed on any given stretch of roadway. Some speed limit signs, especially those on highways, will post minimum speed limits in addition to maximum limits. Legally, there is no margin of error with speed limits. The maximum posted speed is the fastest you are allowed to go and even going 1mph over the limit can get you a ticket.
One Way: One way signs denote that the traffic only moves in one direction on that roadway. One way signs also usually include an arrow showing the direction of the traffic. Many drivers who are new to driving in large cities fail to recognize these signs as they don’t have any one-way roads where they live. So, anytime you visit a new area, pay extra attention to make sure you’re not turning the wrong way on a one-way-road.
Do Not Pass: Do not pass signs mean that on that particular road you cannot pass the driver ahead of you. These signs are generally posted on two lane roadways where the oncoming lane can also be used as a passing lane. The do not pass sign indicates you are beginning a stretch of road where you are prohibited from using the oncoming lane as a passing lane. These signs can also be seen on multi-lane roadways, especially in areas where lanes are about to shift or merge.
No Turn: No turn signs will tell you when you cannot make a left turn, right turn, or u-turn. These are typically seen at controlled intersections. Some stoplights are designed to only control cross traffic but does not allow for any turns left or right. These signs can also be seen frequently in construction zones where roads are temporarily closed or turns are otherwise prohibited.
Must Turn: Must turn signals tell you that if you are in a particular lane you must turn a certain direction. Often times on multi-lane roadways, one of the outer lanes will turn into a right or left turn only lane. These signs will help warn you and give you enough time to get into a non-turning lane if needed.
Road Closed: Road closed signs mean the road is closed to through traffic and you cannot drive there. These signs may be placed on roadways that are permanently closed or temporarily closed. Some roads are closed temporarily due to construction, flooding, major accidents, fires, snow & ice, and a slew of other possible reasons.
VIDEO: How Are Speed Limits Determined?
Yellow Road Signs
Median Warning: These signs let you know there is a median ahead and where you should drive to avoid them. This is most often seen in areas where a 2 or 4 lane road turns into a divided highway. Sometimes you will need to briefly “swerve” to one direction as the roadway splits. These warning signs give you advance notice of the maneuver, especially for when driving conditions are poor.
Stop Ahead: A stop ahead sign warns if there is a stop sign or a stop light coming up so you are prepared to stop. Many stop signs are located around curves and/or over hills and can’t be seen quickly enough to come to a safe and controlled stop. These signs allow you to begin slowing down even before you can see the stop sign. Coming to a controlled and smooth stop will help to reduce wear and tear on your vehicle as well as reduce chances of accidents, especially rear-end collisions.
Pedestrian Crossing: Pedestrian crossings mean that there is an area where pedestrians frequently cross the road. Generally pedestrians have the right-of-way in a crosswalk, so if you are able to safely do so, be sure to slow or stop to allow the pedestrian to cross the roadway. Nearly 5,000 pedestrians are killed annually due to car vs. pedestrian strikes and many more are injured after being hit by a vehicle.
Two Way Traffic: This sign means you are on a two way road without a barrier, so stay in your lane. This sign is most frequently seen after a divided highway or multi-lane roadway merges into a two lane road with opposite vehicle travel in each lane. It can be especially difficult at night to realize that a divided highway with passing lane has reduced to just one lane in each direction.
Railroad: Most railroad crossings will have a warning sign placed about 500ft before the crossing. This warning sign is meant to give you prior warning that a rail crossing is up ahead. Many rail crossings are very bumpy and can cause a loss of control, so prepare for a possible jolt. This is also the time you’ll want to look, listen, and live! Don’t rely on railroad crossing signals to be functioning properly. They can and do fail, so clear the crossing yourself before you cross.
Animal Crossing: Animal crossing signs signal that there is a high volume of animals in the area and that you should be ready for them to cross the road. Typically the sign will show a picture of the type of animal that is most commonly seen in the area. These signs are normally posted at known animal migration points and areas of roadways where animals are more likely to cross.
VIDEO: Do Pedestrians ALWAYS Have The Right Of Way?
Green Road Signs
Mile Marker: Mile markers are normally only found on interstates and highways, but these signs can be seen on any roadway from congested city streets to, more commonly, rural single lane roadways. Most drivers pay no attention to these seemingly insignificant signs, but they are very useful during emergencies so you can quickly tell a 9-1-1 dispatcher exactly where you are. Mile markers on Interstates will start with Mile Marker 1 on the East side and continue up for every mile across the state. On the other hand, Mile markers for North/South roads will begin with Mile Marker 1 on the North end of the state and count each mile to the south.
Exit Sign: On highways, expressways, and other roadways with exit ramps, you will see an exit sign. Exit signs are required on the entire U.S. interstate system. In most states, exit signs will also show a number. This number almost always correlates with the nearest mile marker, but there are a few states that simply list exit numbers in numerical order no matter what mile marker it is near.
Street Sign: In some areas, street signs can be shown in colors other than green. For example, some city, state, and national park roadways might be shown in a brown color. Other roads which have been renamed in someones honor could be a different color as well. However, the vast majority of street signs will show the name of the roadway in green and white.
Freeway Interchange: Freeway interchange signs help you choose the proper lane before entering an area where freeways come together. It’s important to pay attention to these signs as they will indicate in advance which lane you will need to enter in order to stay on your existing freeway or change to a new one.
Blue Road Signs
Local Information: Information signs are usually found on freeways and highways. They are normally placed before an exit to show what services are available. These signs can tell motorists if there is lodging, gas stations, food, hospitals, airports, and other services. Some local information signs will also give specific names of service stations, restaurants, etc. At the end of an off-ramp, you will normally see blue signs with arrows pointing in the direction of where you can find those services.
Emergency Telephone: While not as common since the advent of cell phones, many rural roadways, highways, and expressways have emergency telephones on the side of the roadway. These phones are still extremely important for those driving in very rural areas where cell phone reception is minimal. Emergency phones are not to be confused with calling 9-1-1. You can use an emergency phone for non-emergency situations such as if you ran out of gas and need assistance. If you do need to use an emergency phone, be sure to pull as far off the roadway as possible and activate your 4-way flashers.
Handicapped Parking: Handicapped parking can only be used by obtaining a permit. Handicap parking areas are marked with blue signs and if a proper permit is not displayed, you can be ticketed. And let’s be real here… parking in a handicap area just makes you an inconsiderate person! Yes, it can get frustrating if you can’t find a close parking spot, but please don’t be “that guy” and park in a handicap zone!
Rest Area: Rest areas can be found on any roadway, but they are most common on the U.S. interstate system. Many rural roadways that go long distances without any services will have rest areas as well. Rest areas vary greatly in quality and the services available will vary as well. Some rest areas have full service restaurants and gift shops while others will simply be a parking lot without any bathrooms. Most rest areas that provide no services, like bathrooms, will give notice on the sign.
Brown Road Signs
Scenic Overlook: Unlike rest areas, scenic overlooks generally do not provide any services and are only parking lots. What they do provide are some of the most beautiful views in the country. Our nations roadways cut through all sorts of terrain from deserts to mountains to coastal waters and vast open plains. If you’re taking a road trip, make sure you leave enough time to check out these scenic overlook areas. In the vast majority of cases, you’ll be glad you did (and your legs could use a stretch anyway!).
Historical Site: While America is a rather new country compared to the rest of the world, we still have our fair share of historic events. Historical sites can range from a single tree that has some historical significants all the way up to full fledged museums, ghost towns, monuments, and a whole slew of other historical markers. Many of these historical sites are ones you would never know about and most, even the seemingly insignificant ones, are more interesting than you might think.
National Parks & Public Recreation Areas: The United States is home to some of the most beautiful national parks in the world and many of our countries roadways go right through them, offering amazing experiences for those choosing to make some stops and literally smell the roses. When entering a national park, you will see a brown sign indicating the national park you are entering. You will also see signs pointing to national parks that are nearby. Brown signs will also indicate recreation areas such as boat launches and beaches.
Orange Road Signs
Road Work & Construction Zones: Road work ahead signals that you are about to enter an area with construction. These signs usually state the distance before you reach the road work. Major roadwork areas, especially on highways, may be posted 10 or more miles in advance and continue warning you as you get closer. Small construction jobs and more temporary construction areas may give less than one mile notice. Make sure you watch for speed limit reductions as fines are usually doubled in construction zones with very heavy enforcement. Dozens of roadway workers die each year because vehicles hit them, so slow down and pay close attention. Orange signs will continue to be posted to give you instructions as you proceed through the construction zone.
Detour: Roadways need a lot of repair and sometimes they need to be closed for major repairs. Roads can also be closed due to special events such as parades. In most cases, a “detour route” will be set up. Pay attention along your route as orange signs will point you in the right direction and the best way to get around the detour. Driving on a closed road is a huge fine and very dangerous, so don’t do it!
Road Closed: Unlike detour signs, a road closed sign does not give you an alternate route to take. The road is simply closed and you are left to figure out a new way to go on your own. Some signs will say “road closed to thru traffic” which means the road is closed unless you live on that road or you are going to a business that can only be accessed on the closed road.