Road Signs: The Ultimate New Driver Handbook

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No matter if you are traveling on a rural road, a suburban street or a highway overpass, road signs will be present to alert you to potential hazards, route changes and speed limits. And for new drivers, the sheer amount of signs and new laws to follow can get overwhelming.

To uncomplicate the intricate rules of the road and help you nail your drivers test (not to mention stay safe when traveling) we’ve created the ultimate guide to road signs. Keep reading to get familiarized with how the road signs we know today came to be, the most common shapes and colors as well as the meaning behind each sign.

Road signs: what you need to know

To help you navigate any road with ease, there are important signs that you need to have committed to memory. In addition to recognizing their shape and color, understanding how to follow the laws they dictate is crucial to your well-being behind the wheel. Below, we break down the four main types of road signs, common shapes and colors and unique signs you should be aware of as a new driver.

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The three main types of road signs

The three main types of road signs are regulatory signs, warning signs and guide signs.

Regulatory signs

A regulatory sign is a reminder to drivers about traffic regulations and laws. While most regulatory signs are enforced at all times, some are conditional depending on the time of day and weather, but still must be followed as stated. Typical regulatory signs can come in a variety of shapes and colors, and include stop signs, speed limit signs, one way signs and yield signs.

Warning signs

Warning signs are used to draw the driver’s attention to an upcoming or possible hazard that will affect how they drive. It also alerts the driver to circumstances that they cannot easily spot, such as potential pedestrians, animal crossings or a speed bump in the road. Warning signs are generally pennant shaped and bright yellow with a reflective coating.

Guide signs

Guide signs state mileage and location-specific information such as exit and entry signs for a freeway. Route signs also fall into this category as well, as they signal the route number and or county travelers are in to help keep them up-to-date on their current location. They also include hiking, parking and rest stop signs. These types of signs are often rectangular and green or white, but can take on a variety of unique shapes and colors depending upon the type of information displayed.

Nine road sign shapes you need to know

The nine main road sign shapes are octagons, equilateral triangles, circles, pennants, pentagons, crossbucks, diamonds, rectangles and trapezoids. These popular shapes are given specific meanings to help bring about a universal understanding of how to behave on the road. Not only is this useful to new drivers as they practice driving, but it helps drivers in less than ideal weather conditions recognize signs early on. Below is a breakdown of the most common shapes, their meaning and examples you’ll encounter when traveling.

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main road sign shapes to know

Eight road sign colors and their meanings

There are eight universally recognizable road sign colors, each assigned a certain meaning or general category, including black and white for regulatory signs, blue and green for guide signs, brown for public recreation signs, orange for construction signs, red for stop and yield signs and yellow for warning signs. 

road sign color guide

Miscellaneous road signs to know

Some road signs don’t appear throughout the entire country, as some are particular to location, weather and a wide range of other factors. Still, even though you might see these signs on a daily basis, it’s important to understand their meaning so that you can follow proper laws when you come across them. We’ve rounded up some of the unique road signs you are most likely to encounter.

misc road signs to be aware of

Potential fines of common road signs

It’s estimated that one in six Americans get a traffic ticket every single year, meaning that even those who are well-educated in traffic laws and road signs can miss or disregard a sign every now and again. And while driving errors are a nationwide issue, there are some states that host more traffic violations than others. A 2019 study conducted by Yonkers Honda dealership in New York found that California, Florida and New York are among the top states handing out the most speeding tickets.

The average fine will cost you around $150, but that number can skyrocket depending on your state, the law that was broken and the degree of reckless behavior shown while breaking the law. For example, the bigger the difference between the speed limit and your actual speed, the bigger your fine will be if you get pulled over. Below is the average amount you can expect to pay depending on the offense:

  • Speeding: $75–$250
  • Failure to yield: $75–$400
  • Failure to stop at a flashing red light: $100
  • Driving the wrong way: $100–$120
  • Not obeying railroad warnings: $100–$500
  • Disregarding traffic control devices (signs): $200 
  • Passing in a no passing zone: $250
  • Running a stop sign: $350

Additional driving principles to know

In addition to understanding signs and following their directives, there are other guiding signals and general rules that new drivers must grasp before getting behind the wheel. For example, the colored lines on most roads and major highways serve an important purpose. White lines are used to separate traffic moving in the same direction, while yellow lines are for lanes of traffic going in opposite directions. White or yellow dotted lines means it is safe to pass, while solid double lines in either color prohibit passing.

Other laws include using the left lane instead of the right to pass other cars going the same direction, stopping when a school bus has flashing red lights and pulling over when in the presence of an emergency vehicle with its lights or siren on. And if you ever encounter an intersection with blinking red lights, treat it as a stop sign. Yellow flashing lights mean continue on with caution, as drivers from intersecting roads are looking to merge.

guide to road signs infographic

Do most Americans know their road signs? 

The fail rate for the written driving test is 44% nationwide, and the average written portion only consists of 25 questions. Missing just a handful of questions can be the difference between passing and failing. If you do fail, it’s not the end of the world, as long as you can quickly study up on your driving facts. Some states allow you to retake the exam as fast as a day later. Others, however, have stricter requirements that make you wait a full month before trying again. 

Aspiring drivers can prepare for the written exam by learning their road signs, especially the most uncommon. Here are some examples of signs that are difficult to identify on driving tests.

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Vertical panel with diagonal stripes: The direction of the stripes indicates the direction traffic should pass.

Reduction of lanes: This sign notifies you that an existing lane will taper off up ahead. Either change lanes or be aware of merging traffic into your lane.

Yellow speed sign: The speed limit indicated on a yellow sign is a cautionary recommendation when you’re driving around a curve or off-ramp.

Can failing your permit test or drivers test too many times affect your car insurance? 

Luckily, there are no direct financial consequences related to failing your driver’s exam. Your state’s DMV doesn’t report your test history anywhere, so there’s no way for an insurance company to know how many times you’ve failed. 

If you’re worried about how much you’ll pay for car insurance, these are the factors that actually impact what you’ll pay: your age, driving history, credit score, gender and location. You can study for your driver’s test without the added pressure of thinking it will have a financial impact on your auto insurance, because it simply won’t. 

Too long, didn’t read? 

It’s undoubtedly important to know your road signs, whether you’re just learning to drive or have been driving for years. Without this knowledge, you could be subject to violation fines, citations or even car collisions if you’re not careful. Take the time to learn about the common and uncommon road signs to avoid complications. 

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Lauren Ward
Lauren Ward
Contributing Writer

Lauren Ward is a personal finance writer living in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains with her husband and three children. In her spare time she enjoys board games and gardening.

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