Does Mexico do a Better Job with Road Signs than the USA?

While instructing on an advanced driving course recently in the Pacific Northwest of the USA, I briefly found it funny when I saw this sign but after a few moments of humor I was more dismayed than amused.  Read on and you’ll find out why.

Photograph of a text-based road sign that reads 'Draw Bridge Ahead'.
The humor of this sign comes from the fact that it should be just one word:  “Drawbridge”.  To write ‘draw bridge ahead’ is an instruction to get your sketchbook and pencils ready!  But using text instead of images on traffic signs is actually an issue that harms road safety.  See the accompanying article.  (Copyright image, 2018.)

Sixty-nine years ago, back in 1949, the United Nations drew up a ‘Protocol on Road Signs and Signals.’  Goals of the protocol included uniformity of all road signs, signals and surface markings around the world, to make it easier for foreign visitors to understand traffic signs wherever they happened to be driving.  In the same context there has always been a push for sign makers to use images rather than text on road signs, so that it is even easier to understand the signs.

Yje image-based road sign in Mexico for a drawbridge,
The sign for a drawbridge in Mexico – straightforward imagery that would be hard to misunderstand.

Many countries have followed the protocol but sadly — and one could also say tragically — America has never fully done so.  Indeed, when I travel around the USA to instruct in both defensive and advanced driving, I have repeatedly seen and photographed many examples of how American states frequently don’t even comply with national standardization guidelines from the USDOT and FHWA — a document by the title of the “Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices,” (or equally cumbersome acronym of “MUTCD”).

A European style sign for a drwabridge.
A European-style sign for a drawbridge, with only the surround being noticeably different (The Mexican sign uses a U.S. style of background and shape.)

On an international level, this is why in many countries you will see a predominance of images rather than text on most road signs but in the USA one sees far too many textual road signs that easily could utilize images but don’t,  and which are therefore understandable only to people who can quickly and easily read in English.  This is a situation which clearly can cause unnecessary danger.

So who is turning (or ‘moving’) left? The vehicles you are following? The ones coming towards you? Vehicles entering your road from your left? Vehicles entering your road from your right? Are you confused yet? And if many Americans would be challenged by this sign, what about visitors from other countries — especially if they do not speak much English? Why not just a plan-view of the type intersection — perhaps with a single word of warning beneath it: ‘SLOW’!

Some textual signs are almost certainly unavoidable in any country but keeping them to a minimum — both in number and in length — should always remain a serious goal.

And here is the international norm in relation to people turning left ahead (if this is actually what the yellow sign in the preceding image is actually intended to convey). The fact that this image-based version is both quicker and easier to understand speaks for itself, but the point must be made.

It would be no excuse to bring cost into the issue.  It no doubt did cost a lot of money in all countries but I don’t think there will be many, if any, road signs still in use in the USA that were installed before 1950.  In that time the vast majority of signs could progressively have been replaced with image-based, globally-conforming designs.

In traffic safety, every bit of wise policy helps!


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Author: EddieWren

Eddie Wren is the CEO and Chief Instructor at Advanced Drivers of North America. His driver safety background is given at:

4 thoughts on “Does Mexico do a Better Job with Road Signs than the USA?”

  1. Hi Eddie
    It’s not only that diagrams are more universally understandable than text but that a picture can convey the exact description in a much shorter time and thus a sign using that technique can be understood at while it takes time to read text.

  2. Hi Eddy

    A further problem with text signs is the apparent abandonment of English. One of my favorites is: “SPEED ENFORCED BY AIRCRAFT”.. Really! I’m sure it means: Speed monitored by aircraft. Similarly “SPEED ENFORCED BY RADAR”.
    Enforcement is only permitted and carried out by sworn officers. 🙂

    On the subject of the MUTCD, which includes recommended intersection/junction markings, I would like to suggest an idea surrounding the turning ‘right on red’ privilege. Apart from the fact that ‘right on red is overly abused, (most drivers simply do not stop, or even look in both directions in a smaller number of cases) an alteration to the road markings would make that maneuver less hazardous. If the right lane stop line was placed about 10 to 12 feet ahead of the left lane(s) stop line(s) it would create a ‘pocket’ for the driver of the right turning vehicle to properly account for pedestrians and vehicles in the intersection. An unobstructed view of the intersection would be available to make a much safer ‘right on red maneuver.

  3. Driving is on the right side of the road in Mexico, which makes initial orientation a simple affair. Traffic signs are in Spanish, so before their trip, travelers should Google Mexican road signs to brush up on the most critical of these, such as ALTO (STOP) or CURVA PELIGROSA (DANGEROUS CURVE). Mileage in Mexico is marked in kilometers, which are approximately .6 of a mile. Catch yourself before you mistakenly interpret a speed limit sign and drive almost double the limit.
    Happy New Year!

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