The Weird and Wacky Truth About Road Signs

By Alex Perdikis

If you think road signs are boring, take a step back and imagine driving your daily commute without them. That’s exactly what it was like when automobiles first came on the scene. Traffic wasn’t as heavy then, but cars shared the road with horse-drawn carriages, and often the result was less-than happy.

Road Signs Have an Ancient History

The first road signs didn’t come about, as you might suspect when motor cars hit the road. Long before that, the rulers in the ancient Roman Empire devised a system of signs to give travelers and traders information.

As the Roman Empire grew, it paved roads to facilitate trade. People walked or used animals and carts to move market products from one place to another. To give travelers who used some of the 62,000 miles of roads information about where they were and how far they had to go, Roman rulers devised a system of numbered milestones to help them on their way.

The milestones were an amazing construction made up of 4,400 pounds of stones. To this day, no one knows how these giant stone markers were delivered to locations along the roadside.

Early Road Signs in the U.S.

Accidents weren’t the only mishaps for early drivers. They also got lost. There were no mile markers or directional arrows to point them where they needed to go.


“The first road sign manufacturers were members of driving clubs. Club members volunteered their time and materials to make directional signs and place them in strategic areas along the road.” — Alex Perdikis


The first electric traffic signal appeared in Cleveland in 1914, one year before the first stop sign was erected in Detroit. Approximately five years later, the familiar 3-color traffic signal used today appeared.

The Shape’s the Thing

Road signs in the early 1920s were still confusing and difficult to read. Representatives from Minnesota, Indiana and Wisconsin got together to develop a uniform system of shapes that could easily be seen at night. They came up with the round means railroad crossing, octagon means stop and square means caution standardized set of shapes.

All signs were black and white at first. It wasn’t until 1954 that stops signs became the white-on-red octagon of modern times. Yellow for caution and orange for road work signs came later.

Time Marches On

From those humble beginnings came the road signs everyone uses now. Technological advances, such as electronic signs, smartphone alert systems and accessories for the disabled make roads safer for both drivers and pedestrians. Uniform signs, shapes, wording, colors and letters are required across the country to make it easier for drivers no matter where they are.

So, Road Signs of Today ARE Boring, Aren’t They?

All that uniformity doesn’t mean road signs these days are boring. In fact, there’s still some fun to be had on America’s roadways. The next time you hit the pavement, watch for one of these gems:

  • Suicidal Deer: Next 1 mile
  • Beware of Smartphone Zombies
  • Accidents Are Prohibited on this Road
  • Road Work: Next 8 Years
  • Sign Not in Use
  • $50 Fine for Failure to Read This Sign
  • Slow: This is NOT a %$&#@ Freeway
  • Absolutely Nothing: Next 22 Miles
  • Prison Area: Do Not Pick Up Hitchhikers


Alex Perdikis, Koons of Silver Spring general manager and owner, lives in Chevy Chase with his wife and daughters.