Traffic sign symbol comprehension: A cross-cultural study

David Shinar, Robert E. Dewar, Heikki Summala, Lidia Zakowska

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

115 Scopus citations


The objective of this study was to evaluate the comprehension levels of highway traffic sign symbols used in different countries, to identify underlying rules that affect comprehension levels, and recommend approaches to deal with the problem. The need for such an evaluation was based on today's travel culture where people are often licensed in one country and then drive - without any further training - in another country. We compared the comprehension levels of different traffic sign symbols in four countries with moderate to high levels of motorization: Canada, Finland, Israel, and Poland. Five different driver populations were sampled in each country: novice drivers, college students, tourists, problem drivers, and older drivers. There were large differences in comprehension among specific sign messages, different countries, and different driver populations. Signs were comprehended best when they were consistent with general ergonomic guidelines for display design as they relate to spatial compatibility, conceptual compatibility, physical representation, familiarity, and standardization. Illustrations of compliance with these principles and violations of these principles are presented, and their implication for traffic safety are discussed. Specific recommendations for sign design that is compliant with ergonomic principles, and for greater international cooperation in sign symbol design are made.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1549-1565
Number of pages17
Issue number15
StatePublished - 15 Dec 2003


  • Highway safety
  • Highway traffic signs
  • Symbol design

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Human Factors and Ergonomics
  • Physical Therapy, Sports Therapy and Rehabilitation


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