Accident Black Spot

Published: 1 September 2017

Somewhere in deepest, darkest Essex there are brand new versions of a very old sign. What is an Accident Black Spot, why have these signs come back from the dead - and are they a good idea?

The short answer, and this may be something of an anticlimax, is that we don't know why they have come back from the dead. All we can say for sure is that they have. Several new signs have appeared in the last couple of years in northern Essex. They all appear to be on roads managed by Braintree District Council, so they may be the brainchild of Braintree, so to speak.

The signs are all alike: a red warning triangle, just like standard "bend" or "crossroads" signs, in which the symbol is a solid black circle, and below it an explanatory plate that shouts ACCIDENT BLACK SPOT. Older readers may well recognise the format, which is why, to get to the bottom of this, we will begin in the 1950s.

A new Accident Black Spot sign on the A1017 near Castle Hedingham. Click to enlarge

A new Accident Black Spot sign on the A1017 near Castle Hedingham. Click to enlarge

1950s-era working drawing for Accident Black Spot signs
1950s-era working drawing for Accident Black Spot signs

In 1955, the Ministry of Transport authorised a new type of traffic sign for use at locations where accidents were common. It had a red triangle with a solid black circle inside it, and underneath an explanatory plate that said ACCIDENT BLACK SPOT. In the 1950s, of course, all warning signs had their meaning written in text below the symbol, and lower case lettering was never used, so the only remarkable feature was that the symbol was within the red triangle and not on a separate rectangular plate below it.

The new signs went up in various places around the country and were a fairly normal sight until at least the 1970s. Only one is known to still survive today, on the A200 in south east London.

Less than a decade later, the Worboys Report was published and the road signs we use today were introduced. "Accident Black Spot" was not among them - it had been dropped, along with others considered irrelevant or unnecessary, like the warning sign for a "tram pinch". The signs that had already been installed remained on the roads, of course, until they were removed in favour of other signs or the sites they guarded were engineered into the good books.

Does it matter that these obscure signs have suddenly made a reappearance near Braintree? Well - with apologies in advance - yes it does, and we're about to have a major sense of humour failure as we explain why.

There are two good reasons why these signs were not considered useful enough to keep on the books longer than a decade, and they are as true today as they were in 1964. 

1. Identify the hazard

If a stretch of road has a high rate of collisions, injuries or deaths then its highway authority has a duty to do something about it. Putting up some warning signs might well be a good first step. But the point of a warning sign is to alert road users to hazards so that they anticipate them and act appropriately. This warning sign doesn't do that. It just tells you that you're approaching a place where lots of accidents have happened. Without knowing what other people have done wrong to get themselves into trouble there, what is a driver supposed to do about it?

There's a whole category of signs that fulfil this purpose now, of course, of which these new Accident Black Spot signs are just one type. Lincolnshire County Council has its "red routes", roads with poor safety records on which it erects huge wordy red signs solemnly listing terrible accident statistics. Broadly similar things can be found all over the country.

Drive safely? But I always drive safely. What should I do differently on this road? Click to enlarge

Drive safely? But I always drive safely. What should I do differently on this road? Click to enlarge

On a road with a poor safety record, what are motorists doing wrong for there to be so many injuries and deaths? Are they failing to see people crossing the road, not leaving enough space for cyclists, underestimating the speed of oncoming vehicles? If you tell those motorists how many people died there last year, they might well understand the need to be careful, but being a bit more careful in a general sense isn't going to address the specific cause of all those incidents. And of course, most drivers being told to be careful will think of themselves as careful drivers already, and assume other people are the ones who should be driving more carefully.

Some of the Accident Black Spot signs - such as a pair at Bulmer Tye on the A131 - appear at each end of a fairly nondescript length of road in which there are multiple potential but entirely ordinary hazards: minor side roads, a traffic island where people cross, and so on. If this bit of road is prone to road accidents then we can assume that drivers are misjudging something about it - the speed it's safe to travel, perhaps, or the visibility at a junction. The solution, then, is to erect a warning sign for that hazard so that motorists can respond to it.

An Accident Black Spot sign at Bulmer Tye, with some more useful warning signs hiding in the background. Click to enlarge

An Accident Black Spot sign at Bulmer Tye, with some more useful warning signs hiding in the background. Click to enlarge

A warning that tells you only that people have arrived here in the past and landed themselves in hospital does not do much to help people in the future to avoid doing the same. "Accident Black Spot" is warning about a symptom and not a cause and it gives the driver no indication about what to expect or how to react.

This is actually not a mistake the original designer of the Accident Black Spot sign made - back in 1955, it was meant only to draw particular attention to a specific hazard that would be indicated on a much larger sign on the same pole (in the example above, "sharp bends"). So using an Accident Black Spot sign on its own today is not even using a warning sign from the 1950s - it's misusing one.

2. Say what you mean

Back in 1964 all unnecessary words were removed from road signs and clear, obvious symbols were introduced so that not only could the signs be understood and assimilated in the quickest possible time, but also so that motorists who did not speak English could benefit from the message too. Back then, the number of foreign drivers on the roads would have been negligible. Today, we share our roads with scores of drivers from other nations - from European lorry drivers to tourists and business travellers. If road safety messages that worked in any language mattered in 1964, they must matter even more now.

To hammer the point home, most English speakers passing a particular road sign will probably be local to the area, but almost every non-English speaker will be seeing it for the first time and will be entirely unfamiliar with the road, and it is the people who don't know the road who need the warning most.

"Accident Black Spot" means nothing, of course, unless you speak English - and not just speak it, but speak it fluently, to a point where you understand euphemisms and idioms. The symbol on the sign does not indicate a place prone to accidents, it makes an oblique reference to a colloquial phrase. The sign's designer couldn't even be sure English speakers would make the connection unless its meaning was written underneath.

If you think your symbol needs a written explanation to be understood, is it a good choice of symbol? Click to enlarge

If you think your symbol needs a written explanation to be understood, is it a good choice of symbol? Click to enlarge

There is a warning sign that means "queues ahead" or "queues likely" that shows three cars in a line, because a line of cars is what it's warning you about. Most of us, in conversation, would refer to a "traffic jam" rather than a queue or a line of cars, but it would clearly be silly for the warning sign to be a red triangle with a silhouette of a jar of jam on it. For exactly the same reason, it's equally silly for a warning sign about a place where accidents happen to just have a black spot on it. It is fundamentally a badly conceived and badly designed sign.

The road to hell is signposted with a thousand good intentions

Those are two fairly solid reasons why these new signs are, at best, well-intentioned attempts to improve road safety that probably won't make much difference to anything. But it gets worse - they're also not legal, as far as it's possible to ascertain.

In England, non-standard road signs - ones that don't confirm to the standard patterns and working drawings in a document called the Traffic Signs Regulations and General Directions (or TSRGD for short) - must be submitted to the Department for Transport for approval. You can search a database of all the authorisations that have been made since 2011, if you like. Essex's Accident Black Spot signs don't appear, which means the highway authority has no power to erect it, and it may even constitute an unlawful obstruction of the highway. That doesn't suggest a well thought-through road safety scheme.

So, when we asked whether it mattered that these signs have appeared on a few roads in Essex, the answer is yes. It matters because they're a very good example of traffic engineering that is well-meaning but not well evidenced. It matters because they're an example of traffic sign design that fails to understand good practice in information design (and even, in fact, some of the basic principles behind our system of traffic signs). It matters because they are one of many attempts to change the behaviour of road users that fail to understand the way that road users respond to messages. It matters because our road network suffers from these things all too often.

In short, Braintree's Accident Black Spot signs are representative of a type of highway engineering that places much too little emphasis on good design, and we're all worse off for that.


Iain Dobson 2 September 2017

As Braintree is not a Unitary Authority, the Highway Authority for that area is Essex County Council. Usually a District Council does not put up road signs as the roads are "run" by the County Council.

As you say the term "accident black spot" is meaningless to anyone who does not speak colloquial English.

A good article.

Gerr McKenna 3 September 2017

By sheer coincidence, after reading this article , I spotted an item on the BBC website about a council in Iver in Buckinghamshire installing child shaped bollards outside a primary school . It has split local opinion with some calling them hideous. This illustrates your point about the road to hell lined with good intentions.

Michael Balla Jr 6 September 2017

In the USA we post signs at dangerous intersections that say "Dangerous intersection" or "High Accident Area"

The issue I foresee with fixing the "Symbol needing a written explanation" issue is that trying to communicate that in symbol form, without it being confused for a sign warning of an accident ahead is going to be at best tricky if not impossible.

What's interesting, relating to above, is the RSSB (Rail Safety & Standards Board) designed their own symbols for trains in the early 2000s. Somehow designing a 'glowstick' symbol was a compete failure. The design team could not design a symbol that people understood as being a 'glowstick' without text.
(RSSB: T422 - Completing passenger train safety signage to improve legibility and comprehension - Final 2006)

Anon 7 September 2017

Iain, there remains the possibility that Braintree have put these signs up regardless of who is the Highway Authority. One would hope someone (Essex CC or even DfT) have arranged for the signs to be removed.

Gareth 12 September 2017

Never knew the UK ever had this sign. It is found in Hong Kong, although it tends to have no written panel below it. Took me a while for me to figure out what it was supposed to be warning of. I always thought it was a Hong Kong original, despite the signs there being 90% the same as in the UK but it would appear they inherited it from the UK after all. From old photos it seems Hong Kong kept the older pre-Warboys signage a lot longer than the UK too, possibly well into into the seventies and so this sign may have been established long enough over there to have survived the change over to the Warboys type signs.

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