Local signs for local people

Published: 26 August 2019

Rapidly disappearing from our roads is a particular type of sign that was deleted from the regulations in 1994. They are the blue-bordered "local" direction signs, a whole category of information we simply no longer have. Well… sort of.

To trace the story of the local direction sign, and its faithful association with the colour blue, we have to go back an awfully long way. Back, in fact, to the 1930s.

Black and blue

The evolution of direction signs started with simple fingerposts, standardised in 1920, and in the years that followed bigger signs were created for the benefit of motorists travelling at speed. Most were simply a panel with some place names and an arrow, or even a written description of the direction to take - "bear left for Portsmouth".

Blue-background local direction signs as specified in the 1944 traffic sign regulations. Click to enlarge

Blue-background local direction signs as specified in the 1944 traffic sign regulations. Click to enlarge

A surviving pre-Worboys local direction sign in South London. Click to enlarge
A surviving pre-Worboys local direction sign in South London. Click to enlarge

In 1933 a huge leap forward was made by the Report of the Traffic Signs Committee, which established new types of direction sign that would be familiar to us now: map-type signs, showing a diagram of the junction. Their system had two types of sign: those showing directions for "through routes", and those showing "local destinations".

Through route signs were used on main roads, showed road numbers, and listed only major places. They had white backgrounds in the countryside and yellow backgrounds in towns. Local destination signs were used on all roads, listing more minor places than those shown on the through route signs. They had black backgrounds in the countryside and blue backgrounds in towns.

The system was intended for important junctions on main roads to have two signs, one after the other, on the approach: the first a white or yellow "through route" sign, and the second a black or blue "local destination" sign. The first would tell you the left turn was the A41 to Aylesbury. The second would tell you it also went to Kings Langley, Bourne End and the station.

The thick blue line

Thirty years later, the Worboys Committee came along to tear up all the rules for traffic signs and replace them, wholesale, with the system we still use today. They decided it was much more useful to colour-code direction signs according to the type of road you were on, not the type of information they showed, and introduced green signs for primary routes and white signs for other roads.

Strangely, though, they decided to also include a separate category of direction sign that could be used on roads of any type, with a colour scheme that indicated the type of information and not the type of road. They kept the local direction sign.

"Existing local advance direction signs have a black surround in the country and blue in urban areas. We think that some distinction between local and other advance direction signs is useful but we see no object in the present colour distinction between town and country. We therefore recommend that all local advance direction signs should have a blue border of 4 stroke-widths; the legend should be in black on a white background."

Report of the Traffic Signs Committee, 1963

The fat blue border on Worboys-era local direction signs was meant to mimic the thick blue surround on pre-Worboys local direction signs. It was, effectively, something imported wholesale from the previous system, and one of the few things that survived all the changes in a recognisable form.

Local direction signs specified in the 1964 Worboys Report. Even the example destinations are identical to those used for pre-Worboys signs. Click to enlarge

Local direction signs specified in the 1964 Worboys Report. Even the example destinations are identical to those used for pre-Worboys signs. Click to enlarge

In many ways this was an odd decision, because it went against the idea that all signs would be colour-coded according to the type of road, diluting the effect of the whole system. Just like before, main roads would have two signs on the approach to a junction - the first for road numbers and major destinations, following the new colour-coding system. The second would list local places and carry a thick blue border regardless of the type of road it was on.

A surviving local direction sign with thick Worboys-style borders near Ullapool. Click to enlarge

A surviving local direction sign with thick Worboys-style borders near Ullapool. Click to enlarge

Within a decade, the new signs were being revised again, as has happened periodically ever since. One little-noticed change that was made in the next update, published as the Traffic Signs Regulations and General Directions 1975, was to make the blue border of local direction signs the same width as on all other direction signs. The fat blue border was gone, and with it the local signs' most distinctive feature.

Blue murder

The trouble with making the dark blue border the same width as the black border used on other non-primary road signs was that it became very hard to spot. Already a feature only used and understood by the more observant members of the motoring public, from 1975 onwards the distinction between blue-border signs and black-border signs was lost even on many sign designers.

The next major change to the design of direction signs was made in 1994 - the introduction of "Guildford Rules" that gave signs colour-coded panels and patches. Ahead of that change, a huge amount of research was conducted, and one of the findings was that most drivers had no idea what blue borders meant. Many didn’t even notice there was a distinction between black-border and blue-border signs at all.

Post-1975 non-primary and local direction signs. The difference isn't very obvious. Click to enlarge

Post-1975 non-primary and local direction signs. The difference isn't very obvious. Click to enlarge

The result was inevitable. The introduction of the Traffic Signs Regulations and General Directions 1994 scrapped the whole concept of local direction signs.

"Local destinations have, to date, often been shown on white signs with blue borders regardless of the status of the route. However, this has not been done consistently and there has never been an agreed definition of the difference between a local and non-primary destination…

"Local destinations may be placed on the same signs as the more important destinations, or on separate signs of the same background colour."

The Design and Use of Directional Signs, LTN 1/94

In the midst of a document that made the design of many signs more complex, this particular ruling was a welcome act of simplification. In fact it did what the Worboys Committee failed to do in 1963, and colour coded direction signs only according to route type, and never according to the type of destination.

Of course, many drivers did understand the distinction made by local direction signs, and found it useful. Their cries, then and ever since, have made no difference. Not only are blue-border signs no longer installed, the "saving" that permitted old ones to remain in situ post-1994 has now expired. Since 2014 any blue-bordered sign still on the roadside is, technically, unlawful.

Unlawful or not, there are plenty left; here's another 18 or so surviving local direction signs photographed by our readers.

Blue denial

To those of us who remember buying Now 1994 on compact cassette (and always fast forwarding through "Alright" by East 17), it can be a bit of a shock to realise that year is now a full quarter of a century ago. But it is, and we've now been without blue-bordered local direction signs for 25 years.

That ought to mean that the local direction sign is dead. The truth is that it's not.

Many highway authorities still consider it useful to separate out important destinations from those of local interest, and it remains common (though by no means universal) practice to install two signs ahead of major junctions on main roads - the first with road numbers and towns on it, the second with local destinations. The only difference is that the second sign is no longer white with a blue border.

Not a blue border in sight: a modern local direction sign, separate to the main sign for the junction and in colours matching the routes. Click to enlarge

Not a blue border in sight: a modern local direction sign, separate to the main sign for the junction and in colours matching the routes. Click to enlarge

There are also plenty of people who still fondly remember the blue-bordered sign and take great pleasure in tracking down surviving examples. Ordinary blue-borders are still reasonably common (despite becoming outlaws), but the thick blue borders installed between 1964 and 1975 are a true rarity now.

The muddle of abolishing local direction signs but still effectively installing them has come about because - while colour coding signs according to the road type is effective and useful - clustering all destinations of all types indiscriminately together can be confusing. The concept that the most important should be first, and more parochial places should follow, separated out for clarity, is a good one.

That's why the local direction sign was created all those years ago, and that's why - 25 years after it was abolished - a surprising number of them are still being installed today. They just don't have a blue border any more.

With thanks to @EmmaGraney, @grazer10, @BritishSigns, @BusAndTrainUser and @svenlatham for answering the call and providing so many pictures of blue-bordered direction signs to illustrate this post.

Comments

Chris Bertram 27 August 2019

Hi Chris, good article, but surely there's room for mention of the Devon system of different-coloured borders and arrows for the standard of the route? Wasn't it blue for the best standard, brown for routes unsuited to HGVs and white for the narrowest country lanes?

But perhaps that's for another article another day (and don't forget MoD red borders ...)

Frank Upton 14 October 2019

What is the point of colour-coding signs according to the kind of road? It provides no new information to drivers.

Murray Duncan 18 October 2019

Great article Chris, really enjoyed it!
I’m one of these strange people who enjoys going down country lanes trying to seek out forgotten blue-bordered direction signs! I post pictures of them on Flickr.

christopher spence 6 November 2019

still new ones going out in south beds!

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