DeAnn Owens
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Road Sign Shapes Signify Level of Danger

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Many years ago, the most important thing I needed to study for my written driver’s exam was the signs of the road. If I identified any of the signs incorrectly, I failed the test, and my driving dreams would stall. So, in fear of failing, missing out on long-dreamed of freedom, and avoiding my parent’s disappointment and wrath, I diligently memorized the road signs and, thankfully, passed on the first try. Have I given much thought to those signs since—besides, of course, always obeying them when I’m behind the wheel? Not really.

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But, to my surprise, road signs are more interesting than what I gave them credit for back in driver’s education class. I just thought they were randomly designed markers built to keep drivers out of danger, offer information, and keep traffic rolling along in a reasonable fashion. These signs do all that, for which I’m very grateful, but as for their random design—not so random. In fact, their shapes are downright thoughtful.

According to the experts at, the stop sign had its debut in 1915 in Detroit. Was it red? No. Was it an octagon? No. Was it large enough to grab motorists’ attention? Maybe. It was white, square, and surprisingly small, report the experts.

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It wasn’t until 1923 that members of the Mississippi’s Highway Department proposed the nondescript sign get a facelift and proposed that the shape of road signs bear more responsibility—“The more sides a sign has, the more dangerous the upcoming stretch of road is,” report the experts.

As a result of that suggestion, say the experts, the infinite-sided circle was deemed to communicate the highest level of danger like railroad crossings while second-rated cautions like intersections earned octagon-shaped signs and the diamond shape was selected to signify areas with lesser amounts of worry; signs meant to relay information got boxed in by a rectangular shape.

News Source: Mental Floss