Variable Signs

The BBC have reported today on an issue arising over a sign error on the M42 motorway. The report cites the CPS in stating that the font used in the sign is incorrect in that it is too tall and too narrow. Lawyers are speaking up saying any prosecutions secured against these signs should be rescinded as the signs are not enforceable. The Highways Agency who is responsible for the placement of the signs are reported to have said they are the right size and clearly visible to motorists. So let’s have a look;


This is a typical overhead gantry used on motorways. These are the signs that are used to enforce the variable speed limits that are starting to be used on the motorway network to ease congestion. This includes temporary use of the hard shoulder as an additional lane. There can be no doubt that they are clearly visible. Here is another example where the national speed limit applies.


So far so good. The variable speed limit sections on motorways are often covered by cameras that can determine your average speed between specific points. The process is automated and the math is simple.

Speed set; Car checked at time at point 1. Car checked at time at point 2. (distance between point 1 & 2 is known). Speed = distance / time.

The cameras catch an image of your car at point one and two. It then calculates the speed and if over the limit that has been set the paperwork for a provisional offer of a fixed penalty notice will be despatched to the registered keeper along with a 172 query ( in simple terms.. if you weren’t the driver you must tell us who was).

I’m not going to go into the long and contentious debate about speed cameras, their impact on road safety and whether they are a cash cow. I have a very simple view. If you drive at the speed limit there could be a camera on every corner and it wouldn’t make a jot of difference. If you don’t drive at the speed limit then you must be prepared to face the consequences which can be a fine and points to a prosecution for death by dangerous driving. The choice as they say, ‘Is yours’.

The next question then has to be are the signs the correct sizes? The first thing to consider is the speed limit signs we all know and love. Lets have a look at some;  (and for this I thank my eldest daughter who snapped a few this afternoon as we drove around.)






As can be seen they show a variety of speeds. They can also be different sizes and have different backgrounds but visually the enforceable sign parts are the same. Furthermore, no matter how big or small they are, they must maintain the aspect ratio given in the relevant regulations. Pretty much everything on our roads has to comply with size/dimension/colour rules. Centre lines, double yellow lines, pelican crossing zig zags all have to meet the requirements and must be applied by local authorities across the country. This way there is never any doubt or confusion about what the signs or markings mean no matter where you are.

This is reinforced when we look at the Highway Code where as trainee drivers we learn the road signs. The Highway Code gives illustrations of what the signs must look like. The signs here are giving orders and are therefore ‘prohibitive’. They are not warning or cautions signs. They MUST be complied with.

There are some different signs though. Take a look at this one below;


This one is very similar to those on the overhead gantry on the motorway but it is not saying 30mph NOW. It is warning drivers that a 30mph speed limit is ahead. This stretch of road is actually governed by the national speed limit and driving past this sign in a normal car at 60mph will not constitute an offence. However, if you maintain that speed when you pass the proper signs in 140yds then you most certainly will.

It is clear that the 30mph advance warning sign above is identical in colours to those shown on the motorway gantry. It has a red border, a black background and white numerals. However, when we look at the Highway Code and all the other speed signs above they are different. The official signs are red borders, white backgrounds and black numerals. They are in fact nothing like each other at all.

Now whilst the 30mph sign is a warning and not enforceable, the signs on the motorway have been treated as prohibitive and many prosecutions have arisen when motorists have exceeded the limits displayed. In the BBC article they indicate that the CPS have identified a problem with the size and shape of the numerals. Looking at them there clearly is a problem with the size and shape of them but there is also a HUGE problem in that the colours used DO NOT comply with the Highway Code. Furthermore, they do not comply with the Traffic Signs Regulations and General Directions 2002.. Schedule 2 of these regulations shows images and dimensions for the relevant signs. The speeding signs can be found at images 670 and 671. You can also see that there are permitted variants for 670 (standard speed signs) at Schedule 16, item 1. There are no permitted variants of 671. If you understand what Schedule 16 item 1 means I’d be pleased to know but in a nutshell there can be some minor changes to numerals. However, what is clearly apparent is the legislation does not say that colours of backgrounds and or numerals can be interfered with.

With the above in mind the warning sign image above is still not causing any problems. The motorway ones on the other hand look questionable.

There must be a reason for this. There must be some regulations that have since been added. The regulations enacted that allowed the variable speed limits and temporary use of the hard shoulder to be lawful must give an exception. So we need to look at those regulations which for the M6 in the West Midlands can be found in The M6 Motorway (Junctions 8 -10A)(Actively Managed Hard Shoulder and Variable Speed Limits) Regulations 2010.

Section 4 of these regulations covers the variable speed limits. It details clearly what a ‘speed limit sign’ is and when one is actually passed. In Section 4(5)(b) it says;

“speed limit sign”, in relation to a vehicle, means a traffic sign of the type shown in diagram 670 in Schedule 2 to the 2002 Regulations”

In effect we therefore do not have a special exemption. The relevant regulations for the variable speed limits point us straight back to image 670 in the 2002 sign regulations and we know from those regulations that the sign must be; round, red border, white background, black numerals. Oh dear. It would seem that the ‘speed limit signs’ on the motorway do not conform with regulations. It is also quite obvious that image 671 allows for no variants whatsoever. So looking at the motorway gantry example image above (black background with white diagonal bar) is the complete negative of what it should be (white background with black diagonal bar).

So what does this mean? In order to be enforceable, road traffic signs must comply with the regulations. The motorway variable speed signs do not comply with the regulations and are therefore not enforceable. This means you cannot be prosecuted. If you have then you have fell foul of the law and perhaps you should speak to a solicitor.*

*see supplement

As an alternative example think of the Stop/Go signs that are used by road workers manually controlling traffic. The GO sign is a green circle with white letters. The STOP sign used to be a red circle with white letters. Yet the STOP and GIVE WAY sign was always an octagon. A few years ago this became an issue and now in the Highway Code we can see that the STOP sign can still be round but it has to have the octagon shape showing. When it was first changed some local authorities had a metal frame that fitted around the circular sign to make it octagonal in shape. A change that was brought about to make the manually operated STOP sign to mirror the STOP and GIVE WAY sign.

In the motorway speed signs scenario the fact remains that the CPS have raised concerns about the size and shape and numerals but as far as I can tell have not given any consideration to the fact the signs colours are incorrect.

You should know that as a disclaimer to my above thoughts;

There may be legislation I’ve missed that covers the motorway signs.
I cannot guarantee success in any action you may choose to take to overturn a prosecution.

Whilst some people may be rejoicing having read the above and are even now pulling out their driving licence others will be jumping up and down. The signs are obvious. Even if the colours are the wrong way around their meaning is obvious and anyone who ignores them and speeds is a fool. I’d agree. They are obvious and having dealt with the aftermath and death after the abuse of speed limits I fully endorse it. Speed KILLS. End of.

Yet we have to play by the rules. If the rules allow for sign variants in this case then all is well. If the rules don’t allow for variants then they are not enforceable. We cannot prosecute someone for theft if their actions don’t fit the mens rea and actus reus. We can’t simply skip past these requirements and this is why officers are often frustrated when they ‘know’ someone has committed a crime but have insufficient evidence to prove it. We have to play by rules. The same applies to road signs.

The gantries and signs will have been placed by the Highways Agency. You’d expect them to know better wouldn’t you? Well if I’ve missed some obscure legislation then maybe they did. As it stands, at least from my perspective, they got it wrong. I wonder if expensive signs were ordered, built, transported and installed and when they were switched on somebody nudged the Chief Exec and said “Er. Sir. They are all the wrong colours”. At that point an expensive option to replace all the signs could have been considered. Another solution would have been to petition an amendment to the regulations to make them lawful. It seems at the moment they did neither.

If I turn out to be correct, I wonder whether an amendment to the legislation is brought about that is retrospectively laid out to cover the signs from the date of installation? Cynical? Moi?


Thanks to @marks359 I have now bee pointed to section 58 in article 6 of the 2002 regs that covers white, off white or yellow letters, symbols or numerals on a dark background. If we are both reading this correctly then this covers the area of my argument. There still remains the issue as raised by the CPS with regard to size and shape.

Furthermore, I would still question why the M6 regs don’t say “a sign as shown at 670 schedule 2 unless as required under reg 58”.

I also have concerns about how one sign is enforceable and an identical sign as on the rural road image above is not. The idea of road signs is that they are totally unambiguous. I find it hard to believe with technology these days that a sign that is electronic cannot be manufactured to show a speed sign as portrayed by 670 without changing the regulations to make it fit.

It is clear the area is a total minefield and ridiculously over complicated. What would the Plain English campaign think? I look forward to seeing how the CPS issue plays out.

Final image added in response to a comment below 🙂


14 thoughts on “Variable Signs”

  1. I’ve spent a fair degree of time thinking about this today. It is certainly an interesting topic for debate. Generally speaking I agree with your statement that the nation should play by the rules but I also feel there should be an element of common sense expected within the application of the law. To fail to allow for this means that we require such a huge level of nannying as to be unfathomable. Hopefully this will make it to a suitable court and someone will apply common sense as much as the law and then case law will support the prosecutions.

    1. I can sit back now and wait be shot down in flames by someone with access to more information!

      Ultimately I’m a road safety advocate. If you want to see how many people speed, just drive around at the speed limit and see the impatient queue appear behind you! I don’t condone speed at all and maybe some case law could sort it out. That said the speed limit signs in this country have been fit for purpose for longer than I can remember. If the Highways Agency had just complied with the regulations the issue would never have arisen.

      What I do accept is that an illuminated white background may ‘drown’ out the other colours and make the signs less visible. If that were the case then a simple amendment to the legislation would have resolved this technical issue.

  2. When one considers that we expect vehicle owners to ‘play by the rules’ with regard to registration plates it stands to reason that the same rules should apply to traffic signs. A registration number could easily and clearly display the reg mark of the vehicle and ‘common sense’ might lead one to believe it satisfies it’s purpose but, if it does not satisfy tight requirements of font and spacing, you commit an offence as it is not considered to be a registration mark sufficient for the regulations. I can see no difference here. If the sign does not satisfy the regulations then it is not a traffic sign and cannot therefore be contravened. An interesting article and I shall follow with interest.

      1. I don’t think it is a humble pie/wrong thing. Whatever happens you have a very valid point. It will be interesting to see what happens.

        I’ve always been very uncomfortable with the registration thing. So long as it is clearly readable and there aren’t characters that have been altered to look like others etc why do we care? I’m not changing mine any time soon but does it matter to anyone that LP04 NDY looks like LP0 4NDY or similar (I’ve no idea why I came up with that so don’t waste too much time on it!!) Obviously when it is massively outside of the font type and size it is an issue but, so long as it is comprehensible I think it is a waste of everyone’s time pursuing it.

  3. Laws are drafted by one set of lawyers so that another set of lawyers can make a load of money by finding loopholes in those laws, so that the original lawyers can be paid a bit more to fix the loopholes. Speed cameras are not the only cash cow here!

  4. As mentioned by @TheCustodySgt we discussed this on twitter.

    The issue the CPS discovered (according to the article in The Daily Telegraph at a court case in November) was that the form of the numbers used on the Advanced Motorway Indicators to replicate the speed limit sign Diagram 670 at this location were not a complete match to the requirements of the Traffic Signs Regulations and General Directions 2002 (TSRGD) (inc. amendments) specifically Schedule 13 Part 2 or Part 5 which sets out the form the numbers were required by Regulation 13 paragraph 9 to be.

    They were given authorisation by the DfT on the 27/11/12 see here and are now a permitted form.

    The images linked below show the previously only two correct forms of how the numbers should have appeared

    The numbers in question were too thin and too tall and can be seen here

    Any speed limit orders made refer back to the TSRGD Diagram as the method of signing the order and don’t refer to all the various amendments, exceptions etc. as they would become more verbose then they already are.

    Errors on a sign do not automatically make the limit unenforceable at these locations or where the AMI’s were used as the courts look to see if meaning of the sign was still clear, my thanks to michael769 on the Society for British Road Enthusiasts for the following quote on the subject to explain why;
    “TSRGD Regulation 12 sets out the permitted margin for errors in traffic signs.

    Beyond that the common law principle of de minimumus (too small to matter) would also apply. There are not many appeal court rulings to guide us as to how much wiggle room de minimus offers, so individual magistrates can make subjective calls on it, and to be honest relying on de minimus is a bit of a lottery (and ideally to be avoided). Their usual defence argument is that Reg 12 sets out the limits of TSRGD and thus no further allowance should be granted, sometimes it works sometimes it does not.

    The issue may shortly be properly tested in court with the latest if the CPS don’t chicken out (historically prosecutors have always been unwilling to let this issue get to a higher court).

    I would say that in recent years the courts have become increasingly unwilling to acquit on poor signage unless it really is terribly confusing or non-existant (the “adequate guidance” test). In my experience cases most aquitals happen when junior CPS lawyers turn up without being adequately prepared to argue on signage.”

    In relation to the other issues the @CustodySgts raises:

    Regarding background colour of the variable speed limit signs not being white this is not a problem as TSRGD Regulation 58 paragraph 3 permits variable message signs to display white characters on a black background and has been done this way since the first variable speed limits on motorways and is the same elsewhere in Europe.

    Regarding the vehicle activated signs used off the motorway there is a good DfT advice on the matter here
    The example you have a picture of
    I would say is not TSRGD compliant as the combination of the speed limit sign and distance ahead text is not permitted (unless it has special authorisation).
    The speed limit should match the one currently in force which is obviously not 30mph.

    Regarding the example speed limit signs you have pictures of the 20sign attached to the traffic signal head is not compliant with the TSRGD and I very much doubt it has approval.  There are strict Directions within the TSRGD about what signs can be attached to signals and speed signs are not in that list.

    Welcome to the complicated world of Traffic Signing!

    1. Very grateful for all your guidance, advice and agreement to post these comments.

      I still can’t help but think that signs as prescribed by 670/671 are not impossible. What we have instead, in order to cover changes, is a plethora of legislation explaining the differences.

      I’m sure you find yourself head scratching on occasions. I certainly have. How on earth is the average Joe supposed to manage?

      Signage should be uniform. Variations and changes add ambiguity to what should be crystal clear. This prevents doubt, avoids questionable prosecutions and saves 1000’s, if not more, on legal wrangles and court cases.

      As John said, another cash cow?

  5. I understand the need for uniformity etc and some of the people who were caught speeding will have been under the national speed limit but very many will have been well over it and deserve everything they got. Will the 80mph+get away with it?? I don’t believe they should as they know they are speeding excessively and no one seems to be disputing the technology that clocks the speed.

  6. Couldn’t help but notice that your Natinal Trust sticker appears to be the wrong colour for this year. Thought I’d mention it as we’re in the subject of correct colourings for signs. Mind how you go.

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