Traffic Controls – Signs, Signals and Pavement Markings
By the time you are ready to sit behind the wheel of a car, you have likely seen hundreds, if not thousands, of road signs, traffic signals, pavement markings and curbs painted in different colors. You probably already know the meaning of stop signs and stoplights, as most of us learned those out of childhood curiosity when driving around town with our parents.
As a passenger, though, you didn’t have to worry about what those signs meant, but that’s all going to change now. As a safe and responsible driver, it is your job to know what all these signs and markings mean, and to follow the instructions that they give.
By the end of this module, in addition to clearly understanding signs, signals and markings painted on roadways and curbs, you’ll have a good working knowledge of the basic rules and laws associated with how roadways are laid out, and how signs and various other roadside notifications provide drivers with important information.
Traffic Control Signals (Lights)
In the earliest days of the car, there was little need for intricate systems to control traffic. You cranked up the car, hopped back in and travelled down a rough, unpaved road. You probably didn’t see any other drivers on the road. Early drivers were automobile pioneers.
But with some 240 million cars on the road in the U.S. today, times have changed. Nevada, just like other states, uses traffic controls to regulate where, when and how cars travel on public roads. It’s impossible to have state transportation workers guiding traffic on every street corner, so over the years, cities and states have developed a network of signs, signals, pavement markings, and curb markings to guide drivers and help make them aware of each other’s presence and movements. Each sign, signal or marking serves one or more of these purposes:
Coordinate the speed, direction and flow of traffic on the road.
Warn drivers of changing conditions or upcoming hazards.
Regulate the actions and movement of drivers
Inform drivers which route they’re driving on, plus any state or local rules covering that road.
This is all well and good, but traffic signs are ineffective if people don’t know what they mean. Drivers applying for their first license must prove that they know what the road signs and signals mean. Safe and responsible drivers are always scanning the road for traffic signs and signals—not just for road hazards— while they’re driving and when they reach an intersection. Many intersections have traffic signals or signs to regulate traffic that passes through the intersection, such as No Left Turn or No U-Turn signs. Safe and responsible drivers notice and follow these signs, but not all drivers are safe and responsible, so it’s important to slow down and be careful whenever you go through an intersection. You should always keep in mind that the majority of crashes happen at intersections.
Traffic signals are placed at intersections to keep traffic moving and to avoid traffic collisions. Drivers, pedestrians, and bicycle riders must obey these signals, except when a police officer is directing traffic. If traffic signals are out of order, treat the light as if it were a 4-way stop sign. Some of the more common control lights and their meanings include:
Steady Circular Lights
Red: You must make a complete stop before the crosswalk or stop line. Do not stop in the middle of a cross walk! If there is no crosswalk or stop line, then you must stop before you enter the intersection. Generally, you are allowed to make a right turn at a red light, but only after you have come to a complete stop and only if there isn’t a sign specifically prohibiting a right turn on red. Be sure to look for that sign. Even when you are allowed to turn on red, you still must yield to any pedestrians, bicyclists, and other vehicles that are close enough to create a hazard. This means you let them go first, or “yield” to them.
Yellow: This means, “caution” — it’s telling you that the light is about to turn red. It is legal to carefully drive through an intersection on a yellow light, but only if you can’t safely stop and you do not enter the intersection after the light turns red. In other words, that light must still be yellow when your tires cross that crosswalk. Contrary to what many drivers, even some experienced ones, believe, a yellow light does NOT mean speed up so you can get through the intersection. In fact, the state of Nevada makes it a violation of law if you speed up when approaching an intersection in order to beat a yellow light.
Green: Green means “go”, but only if you can do it safely. Be sure to look left, right, and then left again to make sure the intersection is clear. Sometimes careless and reckless drivers run red lights and you don’t want to have a collision with one of them in the middle of an intersection. These types of collisions are very serious due to the speeds and the sections of the vehicles involved in the crash. If there are any other cars, bicyclists, or pedestrians already in the intersection, wait for them to clear the road before you continue through the intersection. And this bears repeating: Beware of careless drivers on the cross street who try to beat a red light. We cannot emphasize this enough.
While we rely on signals to tell us what to do, you should also be aware that the lack of a signal also provides indication of what you can and cannot do. The most common example of this is a broken traffic signal. Broken traffic lights should be treated like a four-way stop. This means you (and all other drivers) must stop completely, and then wait for vehicles within the intersection and for those who reached the intersection before you did to go first.. Don’t try and beat other drivers through the intersection. Go when it is your turn and the way is clear.
As you will also learn a bit later, the lack of crosswalk does not mean that a crosswalk does not exist. In fact, it’s just the opposite.
Flashing Circular Signal (Lights)
Flashing lights tell you to stop or yield, depending on the color of the light.
Flashing Red: A flashing red light means the same thing as a stop sign. Come to a complete stop, and then proceed when the way is clear and it is your turn.
Flashing Yellow: A flashing yellow light means you can go, but very carefully. Slow down and look both ways. Stop if you need to in order to make sure the way is clear before going through the intersection.
An arrow light is used just like the solid color circular lights. It controls the direction of traffic.
Red Arrow: A red arrow is just like a regular red light, but with one exception. It also means that you can’t make a turn against the signal. You have to wait until the light turns green or shows a green arrow before you can go. This arrow only applies to drivers in the left or right turn lanes.
Yellow Arrow: A flashing yellow arrow is a fairly new concept, but is found in many intersections throughout the state. These signals indicate a turn is allowed, but only after yielding to other traffic. You do not have the right of way with a flashing yellow arrow. You must yield.
Green Arrow: A green arrow allows you to make a left or right turn, depending on the direction that the arrow is pointing. You still have to watch for oncoming vehicles, bicycles or pedestrians, so never assume that you have the right-of-way just because you have a green arrow. A green arrow can also indicate which lane you are supposed to drive in. When it points downward, it means that you are allowed to drive in that lane.
In order to keep rush hour traffic moving smoothly, some roads have signals that control the use and direction of each lane in that road at different times during the day. These signals are positioned above the lanes. As we just noted, a green arrow pointing downward is an example of a lane control signal. It tells you it’s OK to travel in the direction you are going in that particular lane. Other signals include:
Red X: This signal means you may not drive in that lane at that time.
Yellow X: This signal means that you should move out of the lane as soon as you safely can.
A pedestrian signal lets pedestrians (people walking on the sidewalks and streets) know when it’s OK to cross the street. Pedestrian signals normally work in tandem with regular traffic signals (red, yellow and green lights).
DON’T WALK: A red hand or the words “DON’T WALK” mean that pedestrians may not cross the street. If it is flashing, it warns pedestrians that the signal is changing and they must wait until the next WALK signal to cross.
WALK: The white figure or word “WALK” means that it’s pedestrians’ turn to cross the street. If you are a driver and you see the white signal, you must wait for any pedestrians in your path to finish crossing the side of the street that you wish to travel on.
Pavement and Curb Markings
Traffic control indicators aren’t only at eye-level, nor are they all in the form of signs. Many important safety controls are painted on the roads and curbs to help direct drivers and control traffic flow. You must know what the different lines and colors mean, and obey them as you would traffic signs or signals.
White and yellow lines are used along pavement edges and between lanes to keep vehicles in line. These lines may be solid or broken (long dashes), single or double. Unless you are turning, exiting a highway, or changing lanes, always stay between the lines marking your lane.
Yellow lines indicate that traffic on this road is flowing in opposite directions. Single yellow lines may also mark the left edge of the pavement on divided highways and one-way streets. When driving on roads with a yellow centerline, you must take care to stay to the right of this line and on your side of the road. There are some exceptions to this rule, however, which we explain below:
Broken Yellow Line: A broken yellow line separates lanes of traffic moving in opposite directions and they are most often seen on a two-lane rural road. Stay to the right of the line unless you are passing a vehicle in front of you. When passing, you may cross this broken line temporarily and only when it is safe to do so. Remember, you are crossing into oncoming traffic when you do this, so it’s crucial for you to be sure you have enough time and space before you try to pass. If you don’t, you could be risking a head-on collision.
Solid Yellow Line Next to Broken Lines: This set of lines tells drivers who may – and who may not – pass on the left. A solid yellow line on your side of the road means you may not cross over to the left to pass. A broken yellow line on your side, however, means you may pass, but only if it is safe.
Yellow Center Turn Lane: If there is a two-way, left-turn center lane with solid outside yellow lines and broken inside yellow lines on each side, you are allowed to cross the solid yellow line to use the turn lane. But remember: this lane has restricted uses. You can only be in this lane for left turns or U-turns (unless you see a sign that prohibits U turns), or when entering or exiting a driveway or private road. Passing is not allowed in a center turn lane.
Solid Double Yellow Lines: These solid double lines separate traffic traveling in opposite directions – and sometimes at high rates of speed. Do not cross double solid yellow lines except when making a left turn or an allowed U-turn – and then only after yielding to traffic.
White lines indicate that traffic is flowing in the same direction. These lines are also mark the right edge of a road and crosswalks. The most common types of white line markings are:
Broken White Line: A broken white line separates the lanes on a road with traffic traveling in the same direction. These are common on multi lane highways. You are allowed to cross broken white lines when changing lanes or passing another car. Be sure it is safe to change and don’t forget to signal.
Solid White Line: A solid white line separates lanes of traffic that are moving in the same direction. It also is used to indicate the right edge of a roadway. You are not allowed to cross this line except to avoid a hazard when you have no other choice.
Double Solid White Line: Double solid white lines separate two lanes of traffic that are traveling in the same direction. You are not allowed to cross these lines at all.
Solid White Lines with Arrows: White lines with arrows mark designated turning lanes. Sometimes these lanes are separated from other lanes by a solid white line. When you see that solid white line, you should not change lanes. If you are driving in a lane marked with an arrow and the word ONLY, that means you are in a turn-only lane and you must make that turn. Make a habit of scanning for turn-only lanes, especially if you are driving in the right-hand lane.
Crosswalks / Pedestrian Crossing
A pedestrian crossing or crosswalk is an area in the roadway that is designated for pedestrians to cross a road. In Nevada, every intersection is considered to be a crosswalk, regardless of whether or not there are pavement markings indicating a crosswalk.
Crosswalks are designed to keep pedestrians together where they can be seen by motorists, and where they can cross most safely across the normal flow of vehicular traffic.
Marked crosswalks are most often found at intersections but they are also found at other places on the roadways in Nevada as well. These places are typically busy areas that have been deemed unsafe to cross if there was no crosswalk present. Normally these areas have designated crosswalks because of a large volume of vehicle traffic in the area, fast speeds, large road width or because there is a large amount of pedestrian traffic in the area, such as near shopping centers or schools.
When driving, you should keep in mind that some crosswalks are controlled by lighted signals while others are not. Again, you should also know that just because there is not a clearly marked crosswalk, that doesn’t mean that the area prohibits pedestrian crossing. The fact is, all intersections in Nevada are considered to be crosswalks whether there are pavement markings or not!
At intersections controlled by a stop sign, yield sign or traffic light, there may be a white solid line on the pavement prior to the intersection. When you are required to stop in these areas, you must stop your vehicle before reaching the stop line (not on top of it).
Lane symbols are used to designate special lanes for certain vehicles. These include HOV lanes and bicycle lanes. These lane symbols and the lanes themselves are white in color.
HOV lanes are designated by a large diamond shape. Your vehicle is not allowed to be operated in such lanes unless it meets the lane requirements. In the case of HOV lanes, this pertains to how many occupants you must have inside your vehicle.
Bicycle Lanes are designated by a bicycle symbol. These lanes are reserved for those riding bicycles. Vehicle traffic should not enter the bicycle lane unless it is doing so is required when making a turn.
When you see arrow markings on the pavement, this tells you that you must make a certain movement when operating your vehicle in that particular lane. These are white in color and usually will inform you to continue straight or make a left or right turn.
Almost every parking lot, be it public or private, will have designated parking spaces for those with physical disabilities. These parking spaces are typically designated by a symbol of a wheel chair in white markings with a blue colored background.
Unless you or one of your vehicle passengers is physically handicapped, as verified by a health professional, it is illegal for you to park in such a designated space. If your vehicle does not contain a specially issued handicapped parking placard or license plate, law enforcement can issue you a citation for illegally parking in a designated handicapped parking space.
Plates and placards must be used only by the person to whom they were issued. You may not use someone else’s privilege. DMV issues authorization letters that must be stored in the vehicle if it is equipped with handicapped plates, or carried by the person who has been issued the placard. The minimum fine for parking illegally in a handicapped space is $250.
Curb markings let you know whether you are allowed to park in a certain area. However, there are many more places where signs indicate that parking is not permitted – and it’s a good idea to pay close attention. Parking tickets can be costly, and recovering your car after it’s been towed is often very expensive. Always check for signs that prohibit or limit parking.
Below we describe the situations in which is it always illegal to park your car except when you need to avoid a collision or you are following the instructions of law enforcement:
Red Colored Curb: Don’t do it: you are never allowed to stop at a red curb. This is indicative of a fire lane and violations of fire lane parking are not taken lightly. Not only can you receive a traffic citation, your vehicle can be towed.
Green Colored Curb: This means limited time: you may only park at a green curb for a specific amount of time. That time is usually painted on the curb or posted on a nearby sign.
White Colored Curb: You may only stop at a white curb to pick up or drop off passengers or mail.
Yellow Colored Curb: You may only stop at a yellow curb long enough to load or unload passengers, packages or cargo.
Blue Colored Curb: This is for handicapped parking. You are only allowed to park at a blue curb if you have a specially assigned placard or license that indicates to law and parking enforcement that you have been designated as disabled. Parking in a handicap parking space even for a few minutes can result in a citation and costly fine.
Road Sign Basics
There are numerous colors and numerous shapes of traffic signs. Each shape and each color has an exact meaning, so you must acquaint yourself with all of them. As with curb markings, color is an important communicator of information when it comes to road signs, but shape is equally important. That’s because in poor driving conditions, such as fog, sometimes the only part of the road sign you may be able to see is its shape. Traffic signs also have “legends,” which are key words or symbols that communicate specific information. They may require a little more time to interpret, but they are just as important as a sign’s color and shape.
There are three general types of signs that you will find while driving in Nevada:
Regulatory Signs: Regulatory signs tell you what you may or may not do. Some may command you to slow down or to be aware of certain obstacles. Other regulatory signs alert drivers to prohibited actions, such as turning restrictions, lane changes, speed limits or pedestrian right-of-way and parking limits. Most regulatory signs are white in color with black text or symbols, but a few use different colors such as red.
Warning Signs: Warning signs signal hazards or sudden shifts in road conditions. They may require drivers to slow down or look out for abnormal situations. Warning signs generally are diamond shaped and have yellow backgrounds with black text, though there are some exceptions. For example, signs designating construction zones are also diamond shaped but are usually orange in color with black text. When you see construction signs, you should prepare to slow down and be aware of construction workers and other potentially hazardous conditions.
Guide Signs: Guide signs may come in several shapes and are usually blue, brown or green. They show route markers, directions, points of interest, distances, destinations, services, and other recreational, cultural or geographical information.
As a safe and responsible driver, it is crucial to pay close attention to the information you are given via road signs. These traffic signs provide you with the information you need to drive safely on any particular roadway. Traffic officials used a series of colors and shapes in designing road signs so that drivers wouldn’t have to stop and read each sign that they saw. These different colors and shapes help make identifying signs easier and faster, especially on the road.
Colors of Signs
Here are some of the most common colors used on signs, and what those colors generally mean:
Red: is used on regulatory signs to tell drivers that certain actions are prohibited, or that the use of a particular road is restricted. It is often seen on STOP and YIELD signs.
Black: regulatory signs. Usually black background with white text.
White: regulatory signs. Typically a white background with a black legend.
Yellow: is used for most warning signs. These signs are yellow with black lettering or symbols and most are diamond-shaped. These signs warn you to slow down and to be prepared to stop if necessary due to a special situation or hazard ahead.
Fluorescent Yellow-Green: This is the newest color of signs that are now being used or pedestrian, bicycle and school warning signs. This fluorescent color is much easier to see in low light, foggy conditions and rainy weather.
Orange: is used for temporary traffic control signs, such as to warn of an upcoming construction site.
Blue: is used for traveler information signs to help drivers locate services such as gas stations, motels, places to eat, rest areas, phones, and special areas that are accessible to the disabled.
Green: is used for guide signs that help drivers find the right exit and their destination. This color is also used to inform drivers of allowed actions and to mark bicycle paths.
Brown: is used for recreational signs. These signs show drivers where to go for public recreation areas as well as cultural or scenic interest stops.
Shapes of Signs
As we noted before, a sign’s shape gives drivers important information. These shapes always tell you the following, with only a few exceptions:
Octagon: This shape is used exclusively for STOP signs.
Triangle: This shape is used exclusively for YIELD signs. It always points down.
Horizontal Rectangle: This shape is used for guide signs, as well as some warning signs and temporary traffic control signs.
Vertical Rectangle: This shape is used for regulatory signs.
Pennant: This shape is used exclusively for no-passing zone signs.
Diamond: This shape is used for warning signs.
Circle: This shape is used exclusively to warn drivers of a railroad crossing ahead.
Cross (X): This shape is used exclusively for railroad crossing signs.
Pentagon: This shape, which is similar to a house, is used for school warning signs, as well as some route marker signs.
Shield: This shape is used for route marker signs.
Trapezoid: This shape is used for recreational area guide signs.
Other Shapes: Route marker signs may use other shapes that do not fit into any of the above categories. For example, signs marking Nevada state routes are shaped like Nevada.
Literal Meaning of Most Commonly Encountered Signs
Stop Sign: a red, octagonal shaped sign is best known as a stop sign. The literal meaning of this sign means just that – that you must come to a complete stop. A complete stop means your vehicle has stopped completely and is not moving. When you stop at a stop sign, you must remain stopped until you can safely and legally proceed.
Yield Sign: a red and white triangular sign is known as a yield sign. The yield sign tells the driver that they must prepare to stop, if necessary, and let another driver proceed with the right of way. This differs from a stop sign in that you are permitted to look ahead and stop if necessary.
Speed Limit: Speed limit signs are designated as white colored signs with black writing, containing a number, that tell drivers the speed “limit” which is the maximum allowed speed that they can travel on that particular stretch of road.