Everywhere a Sign: How to Avoid a Trip to Your Friendly Local Body Shop

Road signs

People past a certain age and given to nostalgic rumination will likely remember “Signs,” a popular song from the early 1970s by the Canadian rock group Five Man Electrical Band:

The message of the song is clear: nobody likes to be ordered what to do against their will, least of all by impersonal signage. (And—let’s face it—big highway billboards really do clutter up the scenery!) But there is one kind of sign that car drivers had best obey: namely, road signs. Not only can they save you an unnecessary trip to an auto collision repair center…they can save your life! For that reason, drivers ignore them at their peril.

In addition to drunk driving and traveling in inclement weather, the most common causes of car accidents include:

  • Distracted driving
  • Reckless driving
  • Driving over the speed limit
  • Running red lights

All of these, in one way or another, constitute a kind of willful disregard for the rules of the road—many of which find expression in the form of the very road signs and signals we drive past every day and, too often, take for granted, if not outright ignore. And while all those aforementioned “rules of the road,” taken together, can sometimes seem complex and even confusing (not to mention inconvenient), the signs themselves are designed to be simple and understandable at a glance. Best of all, understanding them is not like learning a foreign language. It’s easy as pie!

MUTCD manual cover
Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices

We have the helpful folks in Washington, D.C., to thank for that. For the most part, road signs in the U.S. are standardized by Federal regulations, most notably in the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) and its companion volume, the Standard Highway Signs (SHS) manual.

Published by the Federal Highway Administration, the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices for Streets and Highways defines the standards used by road managers nationwide to install and maintain traffic control devices on all public streets, highways, bikeways, and private roads open to public travel. The MUTCD is a compilation of national standards for all traffic control devices, including road markings, highway signs, and traffic signals, and is updated periodically to accommodate the nation’s ever-changing transportation needs and traffic-management technologies.

As stated in the Introduction of the MUTCD:

Traffic control devices shall be defined as all signs, signals, markings, and other devices used to regulate, warn, or guide traffic, placed on, over, or adjacent to a street, highway, pedestrian facility, bikeway, or private road open to public travel…by authority of a public agency or official having jurisdiction, or, in the case of a private road, by authority of the private owner or private official having jurisdiction.

In other words, whichever state or locality you may be traveling in, virtually all major signs will be standardized to look the same throughout the United States.

The thing is, you do have to LOOK at those signs; and, even more importantly, OBEY them. Unfortunately, too many of them are ignored by drivers, leading to needless accidents and costly auto body collision repairs. So, as a little refresher course, here are five of the most commonly ignored traffic signs:

Stop Means STOP

Stop sign
Stop Sign

This is a no-brainer. In most states, traffic laws governing stop signs read something like this:

The driver of any vehicle approaching a stop sign at the entrance to, or within, an intersection, shall stop at a limit line, if marked, otherwise before entering the crosswalk on the near side of the intersection. If there is no limit line or crosswalk, the driver shall stop at the entrance to the intersecting roadway or railroad grade crossing.

In other words, come to a full stop, look both ways for pedestrians, bicyclists, and passing vehicles, and then proceed (with caution).

Yield Does Not Mean “Surrender”

Yield sign
Yield Sign

Our roads and highways are a public benefit, held in common. Therefore, all drivers should think of themselves as playing on the same team, not competing in a demolition derby. As such, driving is not a win–lose proposition; and so yielding is definitely not optional.

Perhaps because it used to be colored yellow, some drivers have come to assume that a YIELD sign simply means “slow down.” In actuality, it indicates that each driver must prepare to stop, if necessary, to let a driver on another approach proceed. A driver who stops or slows down to let another vehicle through has yielded the right of way to that vehicle. And hey, it’s not just safe to do that: it’s the polite thing to do!

Fast May Be Fun—
But Living Longer Is Better

Speed Limit sign
Speed Limit Sign

No doubt the very first thing you learned in Driver Ed class is this: “Speed kills.” Unfortunately, this is all too true. If you are in the habit of exceeding the posted speed limit and somehow manage to elude law enforcement, ultimately no one can outrace the laws of physics. Eventually it will catch up to you.

The simple fact is, speeding increases the distance needed to be able to safely stop your vehicle while also reducing the reaction time needed to avoid a potential collision. And while “high-level” speeding places that driver and other road users or passengers at greater danger, speeding by even a small margin in school zones, residential areas, and other low-speed-limit environments can be just as dangerous.

So take that lead foot off the gas pedal. Save yourself from having to pay a costly moving violation fine or expensive body work bill, and pay close heed to the posted speed limit.

Put Yourself in Their Place

Work Area sign
Road Work Sign

We hear a lot about America’s crumbling infrastructure. Yet somehow, somewhere, potholes are being filled, bridges repaired, and roadways reconstructed. And while drivers should welcome smoother, straighter, safer roads, driving on them while they’re in the process of being repaired poses special risks.

And here’s where it gets tricky. Depending on the type of road work being done, this particular class of signs can contain a variety of different wording and symbols, including:

  • “Work Zone”
  • “Right Lane Closed”
  • “Detour Ahead”
  • Flagger pictograph

Pay heed to them! This isn’t just about your safety; it’s also about the safety of the men and women who are doing this repair work. In fact, that is why speeding in work zones may often earn you double the normal fine!

Last year, in order to highlight the importance of work zone safety, the New York State DOT rolled out a new campaign to raise driver awareness about the dangers of reckless driving in highway work zones. Their slogan, “Flaggers have families too,” was designed to remind motorists that flagging personnel are not attempting to disrupt traffic—they are simply doing their jobs and want to get home safely at the end of each work day. Just like you.

Finding Your Way

One Way sign
One Way Sign

Traffic patterns in some locales, especially in urban areas and at complex highway interchanges, can be exceptionally confusing. Going the wrong way on a one-way street or highway ramp is statistically one of the top causes of accidents, injuries, and deaths in the U.S. Much of the time these wrong-way drivers are operating their vehicle under the influence of alcohol, drugs, or other impairment. But even sober, alert drivers without knowledge of the roads and traffic rules in an unfamiliar area can mistakenly find themselves driving the wrong way. For that reason, always keep a weather eye out for one-way directional signs.

Don’t be like the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz: make sure you know whether you are coming or going!

How Well Do You Know Your Road Signs?

Take the quiz! →