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Road signs of the times: why are ours different?

While many of those signs differ from North American versions – for example, a triangle with a red border is used for warnings – the stop sign is the North American red octagon, complete with the word “stop” in English.

Jonathan P. Larsen/Jonathan P. Larsen/Diadem Images

People who travel the world know that North American road signs are an anomaly. Any hope that Ontario or other jurisdictions might adopt standard international signage? – John, London, Ont.

It's been 44 years since Canada and the U.S. decided not to merge with other countries on standards for road signs, and we're not likely to yield any time soon.

"Ontario has no plans to switch its signage," says Bob Nichols, spokesman for the Ontario Ministry of Transportation.

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When the UN was setting international standards for symbols, we were busy setting our own.

Canadian provinces generally follow the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) – both the Canadian version, from the Transportation Association of Canada, and the U.S. version from their Department of Transportation.

We don't follow the international sign conventions set during the 1968 United Nations Convention on Road Signs and Signals. The treaty specified exact shapes, colours and symbols for signs – the standard international signage you're talking about.

While many of those signs differ from North American versions – for example, a triangle with a red border is used for warnings – the stop sign is the North American red octagon, complete with the word "stop" in English.

The whole point of the Vienna convention was to curb road deaths by setting standards for traffic rules and signage. Before that, most signs were just text – even if a driver understood the language, you couldn't see what the sign was saying until you were close enough to read it. But that doesn't mean we ignored the convention; we just picked our own versions.

In 1968, the U.S. and Canada were already in the process of replacing wordy written signs, like "No U-Turns permitted," with our own standard symbols.

The National Highway Safety Act of 1966 required all signs across the U.S. to use standard symbols and colours. The symbols are, generally, the ones we use in North America now, but they were revolutionary at the time.

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More than a decade earlier, the UN had tested signs using symbols, which had worked well on European roads, around the world.

The new-fangled symbols went over well everywhere, except Ohio. Drivers there didn't like European symbols replacing American English, according to a 1951 article from The New York Times.

If you have any driving queries for Jason, send him a message at globedrive@globeandmail.com or contact him through Twitter: @JasonTchir

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