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The Worboys report, formally known as Traffic signs for all-purpose roads, was a report commissioned in 1962 that outlined changes to the British traffic signing system. Its fundamental aim was to review signs that were considered to be outdated and difficult to use in an era of faster motoring and higher quality roads. This would require not only a comprehensive re-write of the entire signing system, but also a means of ensuring that the signing system was compatible with European standards as international travel was increasingly popular.
The report was prepared by a ministerial committee charged with reviewing existing British traffic signs in 1962-63, recommended the complete replacement of the then existing set of signs with a completely new system based on those used in continental European countries, which relied heavily on symbols rather than text to communicate warning and regulatory messages. This committee was chaired by Sir Walter Worboys, an industrial chemist whose interest in design developed out of his work with plastics.
The report aimed to introduce a brand new colour coding system for direction signs. This had already been alluded to in the 1957 Regulations as a mix of yellow and blue backgrounds were introduced to denote major and minor roads respectively. The new signs would dispense with this concept and introduce a brand new system fit for both towns and rural areas alike. The main element of this review was the introduction of Primary Routes: a means of aiding navigation without introducing hundreds of more miles of trunk roads.
Further options were considered to help bring down the number of casualties on the roads – in particular the removal of the outdated "Halt at major road ahead" and "Slow, major road ahead" signs. By introducing a mandatory 'Give Way' sign, and replacing 'Halt' with the internationally recognised 'Stop' sign, it was felt that junctions could become far more user-friendly and safe.
The report suggested that the replacement signs should be erected within a relatively short time frame, in particular regulatory and warning signs. Even half a century later, many of the signs the report had signed an effective death sentence for still remain on public roads. The once hard attitude to removing these signs has softened somewhat, with many local authorities retaining surviving examples on lesser used routes.
The adoption of the Transport alphabets for motorway signs, following the Anderson report, was to be continued over to the new signs for all-purpose roads. Lower case lettering would be employed on virtually all signs, following research conducted by the Road Research Laboratory (including a series of trials) which concluded that mixed-case lettering was legible at greater distance than all capitals. The exception was on rectangular signs with a red background, many of which were written in all capitals to give their message greater emphasis.
The view was taken that unlike in other nations where Stop signs were commonplace, in the UK they should be reserved for the worst quality junctions where visibility was virtually non-existent. The government at the time agreed, as it was decided that Stop signs would require approval from the Department for Transport. This practice remains today, meaning that no new-build roads are permitted to use them.
All worded signs were designed out with the principle being that most signs could convey their message by use of symbols. By removing the amount of text required, it was viewed that signs could be read quicker and thus reduce the risk of accidents.
Integration with motorway signs
The Anderson report had already provided motorways with a new system of road signage just a few years prior to the convening of the Worboys committee, and motorways were outside the remit of the new committee's investigation. As a result the Worboys committee made no recommendations concerning motorways except for direction signs pointing toward them.
Following the publication of the Worboys Report, the Ministry of Transport carried out a further piece of work in-house that used Worboys principles to modify the existing Anderson motorway signs, bringing them into line with the new system of signs and creating one uniform style across all types of road.
The report was concerned with the overuse of markings that did not help drivers, so a simplified system was proposed that largely remains in use today. The use of markings was considered to be vital to road safety and the enhancement of junction signs along with markings was fundamental to the report.
The report suggested that traffic signals would be more conspicuous if the black and white signal head was all one colour, and if a backing board was applied. These recommendations took a long time to come into effect, and it was not until the introduction of the Mellor signal head in 1970 that its aims were fully realised.
The report also suggested introducing an aspect on one-way roads that showed a red cross that extinguished in order to alert opposing flows that traffic was about to move off. This emulated what is still current practice in Paris, France, but was not adopted by the government.
A number of the report's suggestions, such as using strike-throughs on prohibitory signs were not adopted when the report's findings became part of the Traffic Signs Regulations and General Directions 1964. The wording of a number of supplementary plates were also changed, for example, "unless requiring access to premises" became "except for access".
Parking signs were changed to be smaller in order to allow repeaters in great detail. The legend "all day" became "at any time".
Suggestions that new signs in urban areas could be mounted overhead regularly were also not adopted, indeed, there was not an agreed policy on gantry signs until the mid-1970s.
Sign clutter was a concern for the Committee, something that has entered the public consciousness in earnest yet again 50 years later. At the time of the report, sign clutter was not taken into account as traffic volumes were low and the effect of signs on street clutter had not yet been realised in full detail.
The report suggested that full implementation of the committee's recommendations could cost up £22 million or more (1963 prices). An extensive publicity programme was called for, given that the signs would need to be explained to the general road user. This was certainly achieved as "the new traffic signs" were explained in great detail, together with illustrations, in road atlases, new editions of the highway code, and widely distributed leaflets.
The 1964 Regulations made "pass either side" a circular, mandatory sign -- a notable change from the report's recommendation that it should be advisory.
- Roads.org.uk: In depth detail about the Report and all the signage experiments
- Traffic signs: report of the committee on traffic signs for all-purpose roads – at the Internet Archive