It’s easy to think of road signage as a medium that has reached its apex, and one that has perfected its utilitarian task of communicating messages to drivers. It’s clear, however, that some traffic sign systems, whether standard physical or electronic, work better than others, and that there is considerable space for creative thinking and technological innovation to teach this steadfast old dog new tricks.

The US city of Evansville, Indiana, for example, this month began dismantling the last units of a $1m network of ‘dynamic message’ signs installed in the late 1990s. Plugged as a reactive system that would improve the flow of traffic by informing drivers of jams and emergencies ahead of time, the network has been plagued by glitches and sub-standard software that often left messages redundant by the time the were displayed.

“In theory, it was a great thing, but I’ve never seen that they had much value for the general public,” Warrick County chief deputy Sherriff Marvin Heilman told the Evansville Courier & Press.

Other shortcomings with variable message signs (VMS) became apparent back in 2009, when a spate of electronic road sign tampering struck the US. Hackers discovered that there was so little in-built security in some roadside VMS systems that gaining control of the displayed message was often no more difficult than resetting a password at the back of a unit. Cue a surge in messages like ‘Daily lane closures due to zombies’ in major US population centres such as Austin, Texas and New York City. Amusing perhaps, but a practice that turns useful information providers into potentially hazardous distractions.

Manufacturers and designers are working to minimise these sorts of problems, as well as add new features and improve existing functions. Here we round up some of the more creative new ideas being developed for road signs around the world.

Rotating road signs

“Shortcomings with variable message signs became apparent in 2009.”

While the problems experienced with variable message signs being hacked to display prank messages have been predominantly overcome by bumping up security measures on individual units, an innovative and appealing alternative is the rotating prism VMS.

These systems, such as Vital UK’s Tri-Sign, offer the ability to display different messages, controlled by rotating panels rather than LED lights. This eliminates the issue of tampering and is suited to applications where only a limited number of signs are needed.

Vital’s Tri-Sign is controlled by wired or wireless connection, with an open architecture making its operation flexible. The sign is also accredited by the UK Highways Agency and also has the option to be powered by solar energy. Vital’s partner Eurosign displayed the system at the Seeing is Believing exhibition in November 2010.

Public transport-promoting road signs: cause for controversy?

A new proposal in the UK that seems counter-intuitive is road signs to promote rail and other forms of public transport, presumably in an effort to reach out to disgruntled drivers stuck in tailbacks and persuade them to take the greener option.

Put before the House of Commons Transport Committee by road safety minister Mike Penning earlier this month, the proposal comes as part of a new effort to improve public messaging on the UK’s motorways.

“VMS systems offer the ability to display different messages.”

In the future, signs could be used to promote parking at the nearest train station and continuing journeys from there, as well as advising on when drivers would be best served by exiting the motorway and switching to other routes to avoid congestion.

Perhaps understandably, Penning expressed an awareness that the move could be criticised for being too extreme, saying: “It’s a complete break [with the past]. There will be some opposition to it.”

Whatever the case, it’s certainly a fascinating glimpse at a future in which the role of road signs has potentially been expanded to promoting governmental messages as well as displaying road safety and traffic information.

Catching attention with hologram technology

On today’s packed roads, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to capture drivers’ attention above the din of car horns and the competition of multiple road signs and road-side advertising. According to new research by Russian physicists, signs using iridescent holograms could be the best way to capture attention for particularly important messages.

The signs could display more than one message at a time, with the holograms showing different marking based on the angle or distance at which they are viewed. The holograms could also modify their behaviour to make sure the message gets through; for example blinking or shining brighter as a car approaches on the road.

Adding webcam technology to road networks

“Iridescent holograms could be the best way to capture attention for important messages.”

The intelligent application of web-enabled cameras to roads and their electronic signs could be a boon for traffic controllers, connecting central information providers, signs and drivers into a well-informed network. In June this year, reported on a new scheme being carried out on a section of US Interstate 77 as part of Ohio’s Intelligent Transportation System.

Under the $18.2m project, major motorways in the Canton and Akron areas will be linked by integrated web cameras and VMS systems.

More than 60 webcams have already been installed on the network, with 18 associated electronic message signs currently being installed, allowing information to be fed back to the Ohio Department of Transportation’s (ODOT) Buckeye traffic monitoring system and back out to drivers more quickly.

“The whole system is tied in, so it can help motorists be more aware,” said ODOT spokesperson Justin Chesnic. “In the winter it’s going to be great to see what the roads look like.”

Installation of the electronic road signs is underway now and the system is expected to come online on 30 September 2011.