Vintage Traffic Signs  

Vintage traffic signs worldwide

Pre-Motor Signs
A pre-motor sign, courtesy a local cyclists�club. Via
Much like the birth of traffic signage in the United States, European traffic control systems sprang up from independent efforts. And, like their US counterparts, the flaw of these independent systems was the absence of uniformity and clarity.

Britain, like the US, developed its own signage systems. Pioneering the way was Italy, where the Italian Touring Club is credited with establishing some of the earliest signage systems �dating back to 1895. By comparison, records indicate that by late 1895, only a dozen or so cars were operating on British roads. For this reason, older signage in the United Kingdom is heavily influenced by cyclists. By 1900, the number of privately owned automobiles in the UK rose dramatically, to nearly 800.

With rapidly growing automobile popularity came increased pressure for safer automobile travel. In 1908, an International Road Congress was held in Rome to establish universal standards for road building and traffic safety. Along with setting some of these standards, the meeting is klockor kopior also credited for creating the Permanent International Association of Road Congresses, an organization that now goes by the name of World Road Association; the organization’s mission continues to be the establishment of integrated and sustainable transport policy and practices.

Mainland Europe

The standards set in 1908 are vastly different than the system we know today; however, it did popularize concise, basic symbols for "bump" and "curve" likethis double-bend warning seen in Michelin, France. (Scroll halfway down for the relevant image.) As with interstate travel in the United States, tourism �specifically the potential for car vacations �became a rallying point in Europe for the implementation of new, universal signage. By the 1960s, Europe had adopted the octagonal STOP sign �with France leading the way towards uniform signage. Prior to this it was possible, on a trans-European car trip, to encounter anything from Italy’s earlier wooden version to Germany’s all-black triangle indicating "stop for all vehicles," an inconsistency hardly considered ideal for the driving tourist.

The United Kingdom

In the UK, traffic signage developed independently of the European system. While the country did put a version of the European signage system into operation on January 1, 1965, it wasn’t until a decade later that the Department of Transport adopted the internationally-recognized octagonal stop sign. Until that time, the UK used a circular stop sign, which is still seen in the Bahamas (a former British colony) today. Britain has made an effort to exert its independent traffic law: to this day, the UK uses Imperial measurements for distance and speed �the only country in the European Union to do so. Older specimens, dating back to the 20s and 30s, are still in use on the Isle of Wight. Still, the UK system, while independent, also relied on easily understood symbols and colors to communicate warnings.

Around the World

The Geneva Convention on Road Traffic in 1949, the 1949 Protocol on Road Signs, and the subsequent Vienna Convention on Road Traffic in 1968 were all treaties crafted by the UN (United Nations) to increase road safety by establishing standard traffic signage and rules. The treaty of 1968 has been ratified by over 70 countries around the world. Current standards, including the red octagonal STOP sign, have been adopted almost universally, though Japan’s red, inverted triangle is a notable exception. For the most part, with signs that use words (their meaning being derived from the common shape), the common language of the area is used, including indigenous languages. In places where bilingual signs are prevalent, such as Hong Kong, the local language appears below the command in English.

Off the Beaten Path

With the world-wide adoption of predictable traffic signage, earlier, quirkier specimens are difficult but not impossible to find. Wander off the beaten path and you’ll come across remnants of a time before automobiles �or consistent messaging �were the norm. This traffic sign on the small Greek Island of Kerkyra, for instance, features horse and carriage imagery, and, for the uneducated outsider, a totally obscure message. In Cambodia, adjacent to a standard-looking speed limit sign, you can find a skull-and-crossbones warning that, when translated from Khmer, tells drivers to “BE CAREFUL, THAT BRIDGE IS QUITE OLD ALREADY." How’s that for clear and concise?