SO THERE you are, leaving Hungerford on the A4, happily following the signs to the Londonbound M4, when suddenly, unaccountably, they disappear. Did you miss something? Are you being stupid? Have they just forgotten about you and the M4? Then there's a sign on the right which you thought said M4 South Wales, but the turn-off was immediately opposite and you've missed it. And now you're approaching Newbury and you're on a roundabout. Everyone is hooting at you, you're trying to watch the road and the map on your knee and you still can't see the sign to the M4. What to do? Reading? Back where you came from? Town Centre? Tear a hole in your tights? Bite your fist? How could they do that to you, leading you on like that, then leaving you in the lurch?

During the war, many of Britain's signposts were taken up or turned round in order to fox invading Germans. Were we to try to fox invaders today it might be better to leave the signposts up.

Five years ago the Department of Transport commissioned a survey which showed that when guinea pig (human, that is) drivers were set to follow the signs along unfamiliar routes in London, two-thirds of them became lost. Two-thirds of the signposts were deemed to need changing. In one of those mysterious but exciting statistics sometimes produced in such surveys, it was deemed that pounds 35m was wasted on lost drivers each year through accidents, missed appointments, late deliveries and - presumably, septic fists and hosiery. Things have not improved.

This week in London I followed a sign to the M1 beside King's Cross station and didn't see another one for several miles until I ended up lost at a T-junction in Kentish Town. I followed a sign to Bank in the City which set me off on a neat little circle and deposited me exactly where I had begun.

'We do get a lot of complaints about signs,' says Paul Watters, Head of Roads and Transportation Policy for the AA. 'There are problems with sign clutter, bad positioning, signs obscured by foliage, and failures of continuity. The trouble is, systems are usually set up by people who know the way anyway. They ought to be checked by people who are strangers to the area.'

Edmund King, campaigns manager for the RAC, says the problem is particularly bad in cities. 'When people get lost, they've no idea where they are. The signposts tell them where they're going and not when they've arrived. Once they're lost often they can't even find a street sign to place them.'

Trying to work out who is responsible for signposts is a signpost hell in itself. My initial approach to the Department of Transport referred me to the Highways Agency - set up in April this year to implement road policy. I wanted to ask them about the new Traffic Sign Regulations which came out in July. They referred me to the Department of Transport who tried to refer me back to the Highways Agency. Slowly and puzzlingly the story emerged. Well, I say emerged.

Signs on motorways and trunk roads are organised by the Highways Agency. Signs on Primary Routes are controlled by the local authority. Primary routes are the ones with green signs which are supposed to lead you from one town to another. All trunk roads are also primary routes, but only some primary routes are trunk roads, and only the Highways Authority knows which they are. Sometimes, though, trunk roads become the responsibility of local authorities acting as agents for the Highways Agency. Non- trunk primary routes and local routes are signed (in black on white) by the local authorities. But sometimes the local authority will act as an agent for the Highways Agency and sign the trunk roads. Local routes are signed by the local authority, some of them by the county council or metropolitan council and some by the town council acting as agents for county councils. You see what happens when you get to a roundabout.

This week I drove from Oxford to Reading on a local route - the A4074 - aiming to pick up a primary route south to Basingstoke. On arrival at Reading I hit a T-junction and a signpost - black on white. I had two choices. To my right the town centre and the station. To my left Henley and somewhere called Peppard. In a split-second decision, thinking it best to skirt the town, I turned left. The next sign was white on black with a lorry on it saying M4, A4, Oxford. I'd just come from Oxford, but no matter - onward] Another local signpost offered Henley again, a no through road, a car park and a black bin-liner. Thinking it looked more southish than Henley, I plumped for the bin- liner, which led me over the river. Then, quite suddenly, there was an embarrassment of riches: two big signposts, covered in names and blue squares and green squares but on different sides of the road directly opposite each other. I tried to look at both and took in neither. There was another sign on the left but, alas, behind a tree. Forced ahead on to a roundabout I had the good fortune to spot the word 'Basingstoke' and a route number on green. I caught the turning, looked for the sign at the next junction only to find it obscured not only by a bush but also traffic lights.

At this point, I abandoned the car and took a taxi to the civic offices to complain. They themselves were beautifully signposted with even helpfully colour-coded lifts. I demanded someone to complain to about the signs.

A perfectly pleasant man called Keith, who was the traffic technician, came to answer for the confusion. I described the T-junction where it first went horribly wrong. 'Ah, you see that's Caversham, I think that's a main road. That's Berkshire County Council in charge there - or where exactly was it? It could be Oxfordshire . . .' Certainly not Reading. You see, what I wanted to have done, he said, was to have turned right at the lights at Church Street. But Keith, I am a stranger to both Reading and Church Street. How was I to know?

'Don't the different authorities liaise with each others about the signings?' I asked. 'Well, if there is a complaint such as this, obviously we would contact Berkshire.' Had anyone complained before? 'No.'

On the way out of Reading I decided to forget about Basingstoke and picked up the sign to the M4 East. The next sign on the route said 'non- motorway traffic' and the next thing I knew I was on my way to Wokingham.

'Road signing is a complicated business,' says Peter Monger, a consultant traffic engineer, with admirable understatement. Monger, who actually lectures in road signings, says that the Highway Agency's most recent regulations provide perfectly good guidelines - in theory. 'The problem lies in the execution. Signposting is the Cinderella of the road business. Nobody wants to do it, it's not as glamorous as building roads. Often you get the wrong person doing the job. Signing is like a language and they don't understand it. It's not properly checked or policed. The whole system is a hotch-potch.'

Another traffic consultant explained the 'Sign Wars' effect of local politics. 'If someone in charge of signing doesn't like someone else on the council, you might find their home town or borough gets left off the signs. And a rather insignificant place might pop up on all the signs because the chairman of the council lives there.'

Peter Guest, also a traffic consultant, describes inspecting a junction sporting 60 different signs, 40 of which needed changing. Once he found two signs to Cambridge next to each other on London's North Circular Road, pointing in opposite directions. What chance does the hapless motorist have?

How to sort it out? Back in 1989 a fantastically exciting new plan was dreamed up for London. It was marvellous. It was all to do with dividing the city up and sending the lost motorists off in the direction of points of a compass. There were stories in the papers about pounds 10m being spent on the lovely new idea.

Sadly though, the Department of Transport explains that it was too complicated in the end. There is, however, a new plan afoot to 'Stagecoach' London. Starting next month a trial scheme will be launched on the A4 in the west, signing motorists to the next three destinations, adding a new one as each one passes by. If it works, then the whole city will be 'stagecoached' at a cost of pounds 15m between 1995 and 1997.

Motorists should perhaps avoid the capital then, for the next three years. The only mildly cheering thought is that, apparently, it's a hell of a lot worse in Italy.


LEFT IN THE LURCH: You're gaily following the signs, then, quite suddenly, they disappear. Try following the signs to Brighton on the M27/A27 west to east. See them appear and disappear and then turn into Worthing.

SIGNPOST CLUTTER: Blue ones, green ones, white ones, black ones, brown ones, yellow ones. Too many signs, and too many names on them to read.

CONTRADICTORY SIGNS: At the junction of the A244 and A307 in Esher, Surrey, you may find a map sign saying 'no right turn', with two direction signs pointing right underneath.

'OTHER DIRECTIONS': All of them except the one you're looking for. Try searching for Oxford from East Reading, follow 'other directions', and hey] You're back where you started.

AM I THERE? They tell you where you're going but not when you've arrived. Approaching Blackheath, south London, from the east, you only know you're there when it disappears from the signs.

WHERE'S THE MOTORWAY? Try joining the M1 at the North Circular in London. Blink and you'll miss it. Or finding the M25 south-west of Tower Bridge. You'll be lucky to pick up a sign in less than 10 miles.

AVOIDING MOTORWAYS: Tricky - especially if you are following the signs from Hereford to Tewkesbury. You'll end up doing two sides of a triangle on the M50.

FINDING THE NEW ROAD: They put new signs on the new road but not on the old ones approaching it. The AA gets lots of calls from lost people searching for the new A14 near Huntingdon.

BLINK AND YOU MISS IT: The sign is right on the junction, you're past it before you've seen it.

LOONY POSITIONING: Two large but different signs on either side of the road. Which are you supposed to look at?

IT'S THERE, BUT YOU CAN'T SEE IT: An extraordinary number of signs are hidden by trees and bushes. The AA recently spotted workmen cutting back a hedge specifically to plant a new sign in it.

IT'S BEEN STOLEN . . . and melted down, or vandalised, and the people in charge on the council never noticed because they know their way around without it.

(Photographs omitted)