Traffic signs all over Britain are being updated in the biggest overhaul for 40 years

It is the new peril threatening rural tranquility. Ancient bridges have been wrecked, trees uprooted, lamp-posts knocked over and walls flattened.

Country lanes have even been blocked for days as lost truckers, sent down the narrowest of roads because of the relentless logic of their satellite navigation systems, found their juggernauts wedged between hedgerows or stone cottages.

A Czech man spent three nights in his cab after his 40-tonne articulated lorry became stuck on a sharp bend on a Devon road until it was towed out of its resting place by a tractor. A village road in Cheshire was blocked for a day after a trucker following his satnav's directions up a twisting steep hill came to grief. Now lorry drivers will have no excuse for such embarrassing blunders. New warnings to them to ignore their satnav instructions and take a different route are to be put up on country lanes in the biggest overhaul of Britain's road signs for 40 years.

Other new signs unveiled yesterday include signs for electric car recharging points and "no entry except cycles" signs alerting cyclists to contraflow lanes in one-way streets. The moves are not only aimed at modernising the advice to road-users. They are also designed to sweep away the confusing – and occasionally contradictory – jumble of signs on main routes and to encourage councils to make roads more user-friendly.

Pedestrian crossings could be fitted with the "countdown timers" familiar in the United States and many European countries, while estimated journey times could be added to cycle route signs. Ministers hope to slash the number of signs by relaxing rules requiring some – such as those indicating the start of a pedestrian zone – to be placed on both sides of a road.

They also say they will cut red tape by allowing councils to put up many common signs without getting permission from Whitehall. Norman Baker, the transport minister, said: "We are cutting pointless bureaucracy, giving councils more freedoms, and updating our signs for the modern era.

"Sometimes, the jungles of signs and tangles of white, red and yellow lines can leave people more confused than informed. This expensive clutter can also leave our roadsides looking unsightly and unwelcoming."

Conservation groups have repeatedly called for initiatives to cut the number of roadside signs, arguing that a plethora of warnings and instructions is unsightly and dangerous. A study by the Campaign to Protect Rural England of a seven-mile section of a B-road in the South Downs National Park in Hampshire revealed an average of 45 signs per mile.

A notorious example of signs confusing drivers is at a junction near Oldham, Greater Manchester, where they are simultaneously told not to turn left, not to turn right, to give way and to keep to the 40mph speed limit.

On the road: A kerbside history

It was the Romans, with their famous road system, who introduced the first organised system of signposting on British highways. Their contribution was to erect columns telling travellers the distance and direction to the next towns.

Parish boundary-markers became important in the 16th century and in 1697 it became compulsory for guideposts to be placed on highways. In 1767, mileposts had to be placed at turnpikes to help coaches keep to a timetable. During this period milestones were popularised.

Modern roadsigns first appeared in the 1870s and 1880s and were brought about by the advent of cycling. They came in the form of a warning spelt out by the roadside, such as to indicate a particularly sharp bend ahead or steep hill.

The development of cars brought new demands for signposts and the first modern attempt at standardised signs was put forward in 1895 by the Italian Touring Club.

In Britain, the issue was tackled by the 1903 Motor Car Act which decided local authorities should be responsible for erecting warning signs at "dangerous corners, crossroads and precipitous places".

A year later, the Local Government Board issued the first guidelines on a signpost system intended to be universal across UK roads. Speed limits were indicated by a white ring with the maximum speed shown below, a solid red disc indicated prohibition, a hollow red triangle was a warning of dangers such as junctions or dangerous corners and diamond-shaped signs were used to provide other information.

Over the next few years, the range of signs increased as cars became increasingly common and in 1965 came the bulk of today's signpost conventions, bringing the country closely in line with the European system of signposting. Among the introductions were the blue signs with white lettering used on motorways.

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