Tag Archives: M6

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 Lawyers are speaking up saying any prosecutions secured against these signs should be rescinded as the signs are not enforceable.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 🙂

Better late… than never

Many years ago I was sat in my car on a road closure. Between me, my car and the live traffic was a line of cones and a large sign. Road ClosedFurther down the road was a junction controlled by traffic lights. Cones and another sign were also placed here covering half the junction. This was to prevent traffic getting through to where I was but would allow any cars coming off a side street between me and the junction to get out. The signs were fairly vague and not very easy to understand. Much like the one here.

I sat at this location whilst accident investigation (AI) officers catalogued the evidence and documented the scene of a fatal road traffic accident. The officer in the case was working with AI and my role was simply to provide a barrier between them and the public/traffic whilst they got on with their job as quickly as they could. I glanced up at the junction to see a car come onto the wrong side of the road, around the cones at the traffic lights and drive up to my location. The driver stopped at the cones. He didn’t get out. He just sat there and then flashed his lights at me and beeped his horn. I looked at him wondering what on earth he wanted. He didn’t relent and then began to pull forward to try and squeeze through the cones. I alighted my vehicle and indicated for him to stop. I believe I shouted something along the lines of “Oi! What do you think you’re doing?”

I approached the driver’s door and he wound his window down. “Is the road closed officer?” I wont publish my reply. After some discussion I established he needed to get to the train station as he was collecting a relative. He lived locally and he even identified a number of alternative routes he could take to get to his destination. Notwithstanding he sat there and argued the toss about the road closure, how inconvenient it was and that we had no right to close the road.

In another situation I stood on a road closure. Not only had I coned the road but I had also put tape across the whole road and footpaths. Road closed signs were again out and all emergency lights were flashing. A pedestrian walked along the footpath, lifted the tape and walked on. I shouted for him to stop. He didn’t. I had to go and grab hold of him. “Why are you stopping me? It’s a free country and I can go where I like.” I pointed out to him that a little further down the road was a firearms incident dealing with a man with mental health problems who reportedly had a gun. He still wanted to walk down the street because it was his right. I lost patience and frog marched him back to the tape and put him on the other side of it. He continued to protest about his freedom rights before marching off in the opposite direction.

On another occasion I was called to a narrow lane. The lane ran along side a river and it regularly broke its banks after heavy rain. The signs555_3_2 were permanently left in the hedges nearby as they were used so regularly. I closed the road with signs and cones. Job done. The signs were council owned and also a little ambiguous as this one to the right. Just to add a little clarity there was also a triangular warning sign that said “flood”.

I left the area and got on with my job. An hour or so later I was called back to a stranded motorist. I got to the lane and the driver in a Vauxhall Nova (yes that long ago) had driven into deep water, stalled the engine and was now stuck in a raging torrent of swollen river. I was in a Range Rover and even I wouldn’t have driven through it. Police officers don’t have an option in such circumstances though. You can imagine the headlines. “Police Officer Stands By and Watches as Woman Drowns”. I had to do something. I collected the strap from the boot, drove into the water as far as I deemed safe then went on foot. I clipped the strap to the Range Rover then waded up to my knees in river water pulled the strap through the towing eye and doubled it back onto the Jeep (we always called the Range Rover “the jeep”). I then returned to the car instructed the driver on what to do then pulled the car slowly and carefully back to safety. The lady was not apologetic. She complained that the road always flooded and it was a liability. “I always walk my dog down here every evening and the council should fix this so the river doesn’t flood.” she said. It would be fair to say that standing in the cold, sopping wet and throughly p**sed off that a thank you would have gone a long way. No such luck. Just a ranting tirade of how she had been inconvenienced. She got a short sharp dressing down and told to go home.

Every police officer in the country will be able to recant anecdotal tales similar to all of the above. It is so common it is infuriating. There is a section of the public who believe we close roads just for the hell of it and then sit around the corner sniggering at those who are delayed. They refuse to abide by lawfully placed signs, ignore warnings and put themselves and others at risk.

There has been a huge backlash recently to the most selfish and narcissistic piece of journalism I have read this year. An article by the conceited Daily Mail hack Richard Littlejohn. You can read it for yourself HERE.

Mr Littlejohn has come for some criticism both from the public and police. Nathan Constable wrote a blog HERE and @_sLserenda an officer who deals daily with fatal accidents blogged HERE. Both of these blogs are excellent in their own right but sadly they are both police officers. Why is this a negative? Basically because the cynics of this world will say “Well you would say that wouldn’t you”. You only have to read through some of the sickening comments on the Mail article to see what we are up against. From an evidence perspective their view is hardly independent is it?

So in steps Mr Mike Rawlins who in his role as photographer was on a bridge overlooking the tragic accident scene on Christmas Day. His blog HERE blows a great big hole in everything Mr Littlejohn has to say and has been tweeted far and wide today.

Any human being with even an ounce of compassion and decency will understand what the police did on Christmas Day. I suspect the majority of those delayed on the motorway for hours on end were frustrated and upset but I would put money on the fact that most of them were thanking their lucky stars they weren’t involved.

There were even people drawing comparisons to the coach stopped this year after a terrorist alert that led to a motorway closure and large incident. Ultimately it came to nothing. Yet I can’t help but think what the headlines and criticism would be if Staffs Police ignored the threat, batted it off and the bus got all the way to London and exploded killing and seriously injuring many people.

So do we take too long to deal with road accidents? Could we be more efficient? Well it goes without saying that we could simply clear the road and let everyone carry on but that doesn’t serve justice and it doesn’t serve the requirements of HM Coroner. The bottom line is that we do all that we can, based on the circumstances, to secure all the evidence we can from the road, the vehicles, the victims and the witnesses. It takes time. Depending on the circumstances one accident may take much longer to deal with than another. How would the public feel if we dealt with a murder by collecting the body, mopping up the blood stains and clearing off without any investigation and forensics?

Maybe Mr Littlejohn is a minority. If some of the comments on his article are anything to go by then he has many who agree with him. Maybe the minority are all collected in one place? Whichever way I look at it I take my hat off to the motorway police officers, ambulance, fire, highways agency and recovery teams who dealt with what was no doubt a traumatic incident with professionalism and care.

Mr Littlejohn and his cohorts can rant all they like about road closures and how ridiculous they see them as being. Until of course perhaps it’s one of their relatives and the police show the lack of interest they advocate.

As my mum said to me as a kid.. “Its better to arrive late than not at all”

In the grand scheme of things in comparison to the poor family grieving over their tragic loss a late Christmas dinner is infinitesimally insignificant and Mr Littlejohn should know when to shut up. However, the bigger problem is not how the police investigate matters but the selfish and inconsiderate minority who don’t give a toss at all for their fellow mankind.

Shame on you.