Learning to drive (and getting distracted by the design of road signs)

This evening I'll be having my first driving lesson. It was always part of my plan to work towards a driving licence after moving to Manchester, and so now I'm finally getting started.

My provisional licence arrived at the end of last week, after a nerve-wracking week of having sent my passport off to the DVLA and hoping it didn't get lost in the post. (Annoyingly, I sent it to them via Recorded Delivery but they only send it back by standard 1st class post.) The licence is kinda pretty, with a metallic steering wheel icon etched into the plastic and numerous other security features, including a black and white photo of my face, which is apparently somehow more secure than the old-style colour photos. It also means I finally have a proof-of-age ID that I can carry around at all times (yes, I sometimes still get IDed in bars).

I purchased a block of 40 lessons with the BSM driving school (bit of a hit to the credit card that), which also included a Highway Code and a practice book for the theory test, which I'm going to try and book for a couple of months time.

I've already started studying for the theory test (900-odd questions to learn!), but in the last few days I've been a bit distracted by the road signs section. Road signs have fascinated me since having toy ones to go with toy cars when I was a kid, but I've never really studied them until now. The UK system of road signage has been stable for over 50 years, with set fonts, colours and layouts. They are mostly fairly intuitive to understand, but there are also a few arbitrary rules.

Anyone studying for the theory test will quickly learn that there are a few key different shapes of road signs: triangular, circular and rectangular. Triangles are meant to be warnings, circles are 'commands' and rectangles contain information. The two main exceptions are the stop sign, which is so important that it has a unique shape, the octagon, and the 'give way' sign, which is an upside-down triangle with the point at the bottom. The shapes aren't that hard to remember, but I came up with a mnemonic anyway, based upon the shapes of key letters. Triangles match the 'a' in wArning, circles match the 'o' in cOmmand, and rectangles match the 'm' in inforMation (if you draw a box around it).

So far, so good. The most confusing bit about road sign semiology though - and, I think, the worst designed - is the two different types of circular signs. Both give commands, but one type tells you what you 'must do' and one type tells you what you 'must not do'. The only difference is colour. The former have a red border and are black on white, whilst the latter are white on blue. This image illustrates the difference:

Both signs say '30', but the red bordered sign on the left means 'maximum speed 30mph' whereas the sign on the right means 'minimum speed 30mp' - quite a crucial difference! To me, this doesn't seem very intuitive, and I also wonder how easy it'd be to tell the difference in low light, low contrast conditions (or if you're colour blind). I doubt it's the cause of many accidents though as the context would usually make it clear - you don't tend to have minimum speed limits in residential areas. It still might be worth making it clearer though.

A geek way to represent the signs might be '<30' and '>30' (the 'less than' and 'greater than' signs respectively), but a more universal method might be up and down arrows, or perhaps the words 'min' and 'max'? Or perhaps the signs should actually be different shapes, for maximum contrast?

Anyhow, whilst I ponder this, I'm off to my first driving lesson. Wish me luck!