Road signs

by Chris Bertram on August 18, 2003

For me, one of the interesting things about visiting another country is the slight strangeness of the everyday. In France, for example, everything is slightly different from England: light fittings, electrical sockets, window catches and openings, the fact that they don’t use kettles, the typography on signs etc etc. Having lived in France for a while, I really really enjoy films like Polanski’s The Tenant and Depardieu’s Loulou for the way in which they get the detail of French life. Ireland just isn’t weird like this. Everything is the same as back home … or so it seems. Then, having been lulled into complacency by the apparent familiarity of everyday objects one is pulled up short by something that just isn’t how an English brain expects it to be.

Road signs are a good example of this. In England, signs painted on the road surface are laid out as they would be on a page, reading from top to bottom. In Ireland, such signs are designed on the sensible (but different) assumption that the driver will process the words in the order in which the car approaches them. None of the guidebooks we have warn about this! So, approaching a bridge on a country road we encounter:


An English driver’s brain says STOP! at this point – which is exactly what we did whilst working out what we were supposed to be preparing for. Another good one was


Into which my brain subliminally inserts a question mark, presenting me with the advertising slogan-like “Taking over? No”, and then pauses expectantly for some continuation like “Try Smith’s widgets instead!” You get used to it in the end.



brian burgess 08.18.03 at 4:47 pm

Sort of like the Simpson’s attorney’s ad. Started out as:

Lionel Hutz, Esq
Works on Contingency
No Money Down.

Claiming a typo, he edits it to:

Lionel Hutz, Esq
Works on Contingency?
No, Money Down!


vika 08.18.03 at 4:53 pm

My favorite British road sign: a triangle with what looks like Exupery’s snake-which-swallowed-an-elephant, and underneath:


I present this to you with no comment.


Chris 08.18.03 at 5:03 pm

Not just zebras, pelicans also.


chanster 08.18.03 at 5:26 pm

My personal favorite, seen in Glastonbury:



Richard 08.18.03 at 7:44 pm

I had a similarly unsettling experience in Helsinki. The unsettling realisation in an Indian restaurant, seemingly identical to its English equivalent apart from the menu being written in an incomprehensible language, that all the toilet doors in Finland opened outwards rather than inwards is an unusual one – it’s rarely the big differences that faze us, as we can consciously adjust for those, but the miniscule ones which cause the most psychic dislocation…


Doug 08.18.03 at 7:49 pm

Favorite road sign from long ago on Crete – in Latin characters, “Deviation.” I was left wondering if it referred to any deviation in particular, or if deviancy in general was just a slight bend in the road away…


Justin 08.18.03 at 8:09 pm

Interestingly, they do the


in the US, too, but I’ve never really noticed it in Ireland before. Maybe the US ones are closer together, which makes you read them top-to-bottom, more than if they were widely spaced…


Michael Kremer 08.18.03 at 8:56 pm

Driving across Ohio one year, having just come through a construction zone with reduced speed limits, I was amused by this sign:



Sven 08.18.03 at 9:06 pm

Multilinguism can also lead to confusion. The other day I came across a van with the word ECNALUBMA pasted on the front. I must have been in an ethnic Russian neighborhood, because the letters appeared to be Cyrillic.


Tripp 08.18.03 at 9:33 pm

I too, enjoyed the little differences between England and the US. One thing I noticed, SW of London, is that many of the roads were slightly below ground level, whereas in the US most roads are made by digging out the ditches and setting the roadway up above ground level.

It wasn’t until I rode in a bus that I noticed how beautiful the English countryside was.


Armature 08.18.03 at 11:35 pm


Richard 08.19.03 at 12:22 am


I’ve noticed that as well recently, from the other perspective – British motorways (think: freeways), except for the M6 in the Lake District as far as I know, are all sunk in cuttings – it’s interesting that the British instinct is to hide them away as much as is possible. Oddly, driving along them can be quite relaxing for this very reason, I think because the population density in Britain’s so high, it’s a novelty to be removed from the ever-present British sight of houses and (sub-)urban development…


nick sweeney 08.19.03 at 12:45 am

The British motorway system (as Black Box Recorder noted) is also curious because it doesn’t really run through cities: it pretty much runs between them for most of the way, unlike the Interstates in the USA, which often run right through downtown areas. I suppose that’s because the smaller space and greater history of travel in Britain created one set of roads that goes from place to place to place — the A-roads, most of which are recorded in the earliest ‘road atlas’ dating from the 1660s — and used the motorways to offer an alternative that ‘eliminates all diversions… eliminates all emotions’. (And I know the US highways are sort of similar to A-roads, but there’s still a big difference.

The ‘little difference’ I remember most from driving in Europe is the shift in typography as you pass from the Netherlands to Belgium unimpeded along the motorway. Dutch road signs are smart and crisp and new and Gerard Unger’s lettering makes font-fetishists smile; the Belgian ones are basically the same, but use a pug-ugly sans serif and look tatty by comparison.

This makes me look very sad, I realise. But Dutch typography in public spaces is just gorgeous.


Bob Mologna 08.19.03 at 10:17 pm

My favourite Irish roadsign is one I saw at a level railroad crossing that reads “herds of cattle must phone ahead”. It makes me think of a Far Side cartoon.

I also like the sign on the M50 in Dublin that reads “weaving traffic ahead”.


Nabakov 08.20.03 at 8:06 am

We were driving through the New Zealand countryside once, mulling over the correct pronounciation of Maori place names like “”Kaparatehau”, “Te Taitapu” and
“Totaranui” and then up came one that puzzled us for a few minutes, “Takeaway”.

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