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Effectiveness of Regulatory Traffic Sign

March 13, 2020

Drivers see a mix of different colored road signs on highways and streets. Most experienced drivers have a good idea of what many of these signs mean without even reading them, since images, colors and shapes communicate meaning along with text. Here are reasons why regulatory traffic signs are most important and demand the most attention from drivers.

Law vs. Suggested Warnings

The federal government has established universal traffic signs in the United States, while states and local governments have additional regulations that vary. That’s why it’s important for drivers who cross state lines to be prepared for dealing with a different set of laws and signs. One thing that all states have in common, though, is that road signs maintain consistent color schemes, as mandated by the Federal Highway Administration. The agency’s Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) is used by all states so that signs are uniform throughout the nation.

Regulatory traffic signs, which are designed to enforce traffic laws, are black and white or red and white and stand out as high priority. Warning signs are yellow or orange and leave judgement up to the driver. While regulatory traffic signs include stop signs and speed limit signs, warning signs often convey messages about slowing down or proceeding with caution.

The consequences of disobeying a regulatory sign are usually much more severe than other traffic violations. Driving over the speed limit by certain speeds can lead to expensive tickets and marks on a driving record. Many drivers may not consciously know the difference between regulatory and advisory signs, but understand the penalties associated with ignoring specific signs.

Driver Comprehension of Signs

The United Nations proclaimed in March 2010 that 2011-2020 would be a “Decade of Action for Road Safety.” Its international campaign was designed to reduce traffic deaths, which it estimated to cost 1.3 million lives per year. Studies indicated that over 90 percent of traffic deaths occur in nations with low-to-middle income.

One of the key studies that led to this worldwide safety campaign was a report by the FIA Foundation for Automobile and Safety. This organization published a study in 2010 that revealed international tourists faced higher safety risks of collisions. It turned out U.S. visitors to Thailand suffered high numbers of road fatalities compared with visitors from other nations. The key takeaway was that international tourists often misunderstand local road signs.

An early 2000s study showed that half of drivers misunderstood certain warning signs, thinking speeds on warning signs were legal limits. A high percentage of drivers also did not understand the meaning of a flashing beacon on an animal crossing warning sign.

Making Regulatory Signs as Effective as Possible

The keys to effective regulatory signs are simplicity and uniformity. In order to avoid confusion with warning signs, regulatory signs should not be overused in an area. The MUTCD even states that regulatory signs can lose effectiveness when used excessively. By contrast, route and guide signs should be used more frequently to help keep drivers informed on where they are going. While regulatory signs are standardized throughout the nation, federal regulations still allow for states and local jurisdictions to include additional information that may apply to the region.


Regulatory traffic signs work best when they stand out among many different types of signs. Contact Zumar at our Arizona, California, or Washington location to learn more about traffic control signage and how to place signs appropriately.

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