Sign of the times: young drivers understand emoji road signs better

RSA Group


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Research* by MORE TH>N shows that young drivers understand emoji road signs better than real road signs

  • Almost two thirds (61%) of drivers aged 17–25 understand emoji road signs better than the real world equivalents;
  • Drivers had difficulty correctly identifying real road signs for zebra crossings, ring roads, no bicycles and steep hills—but had no such problems comprehending their emoji equivalents;
  • Over a third (37%) of young drivers would welcome emoji road signs on Britain’s highways and byways;
  • 7% of young drivers thought the sign for a ring road meant ‘carbon neutral’ road.

Those of a certain age may have trouble deciphering the endless stream of smiley faces, wise monkeys and hand gestures that litter the messages of the younger generation today. However, emojis are now so deeply embedded in the everyday lexicon of teens and twenty-somethings that they have effectively become a language in and of themselves. So much so that, when tested, almost two thirds (61%) of 17–25 year old motorists showed they understood emoji road signs better than real road signs.

The finding is part of new research conducted by MORE TH>N SM>RT WHEELS car Insurance among 1,000 young motorists that sought to discover the difficulties these drivers have comprehending official road warnings and notifications.

What did we test?

Twelve real road signs were selected and emoji equivalents designed. Young motorists were then asked to correctly identify the meanings of both the authentic signs and the mock emoji symbols.

For seven of the 12 (58%) signs, the emojis were better understood by young motorists than the real life road signs, with comprehension for the emojis most pronounced for signs depicting zebra crossings, ring roads, no bicycles and steep hills.

Of all young drivers polled, a shocking 68% were unable to correctly identify the real road sign depicting a pedestrian crossing. Additionally, 80% could not place the sign for ‘no vehicles’, 60% answered incorrectly when asked what the sign for a ring road was, and three quarters (75%) incorrectly identified the meaning for the ‘no bicycles’ road sign.

Perhaps even more concerning is what some young drivers thought real road signs actually meant. Indeed, more than a quarter (27%) thought that the authentic road sign depicting a ‘ring road’ meant ‘carbon neutral road’. What’s more, 25% erroneously believed the real sign for ‘no vehicles carrying explosives’ was a warning of spontaneously combusting traffic.

Comprehension of real road signs vs. emoji road signs

Meaning % real road signs correctly identified % emoji road signs correctly identified
No overtaking  91 30
Slippery road 79  81 
Zebra crossing 32  78 
Road works 98  92 
Ring road 40  83 
No vehicles 20  17 
No explosives 41  70 
Steep hill (20%)  13  18 
No bicycles  25  40 
No through-road  89  89 
National speed limit applies  87  67 
No waiting  78  79 

Fortunately, the majority of young drivers (63%) see no place for emojis on Britain’s road signs, believing they are too frivolous for such an important role (85%), could be confusing for older drivers (49%) and would actually encourage use of mobile phones (33%) behind the wheel.

However, a worrying one in three (37%) would actually like to see the government introduce updated road signs that are more akin to emojis, believing the long-used signs and symbols in existence to be confusing and ambiguous in meaning. 72% of these respondents believed emoji road signs would be easier to understand, while half (53%) actually thought they would improve road safety.

While the emojis used in the research by MORE TH>N SM>RT WHEELS were fictitious, there are, unfortunately real emojis already appearing on the roads of the UK with worrying regularity. That’s because a third (32%) of those surveyed admitted they will use their phones to send emojis while driving their cars. 17% will use emojis every hour of the waking day. Consequently, one in 20 (5%) young drivers has had a crash or near miss because of an emoji-laden message they were writing behind the wheel.

“Emojis have changed the way the younger generation converses, so it’s understandable they can comprehend these symbols with ease. However, emojis have no place on our roads. Thankfully, there is little prospect of official road signs ever becoming like emojis, but we still find ourselves in a situation where a significant number of young drivers do not understand the meaning of authentic road signs.”

Kenny Leitch Director of Telematics for MORE TH>N

This research shows that young drivers would benefit from improving their practical driving experience and knowledge before taking their driving test.  

Leitch continues:

"As it stands you can pass your test without ever having driven at night or in poor weather conditions and seemingly without remembering even commonplace road signs. Young and inexperienced drivers would also benefit from telematics in their car as it focuses their mind on every mile of every journey, promotes greater knowledge of the roads and encourages and rewards them for being safer drivers.”


* Research conducted by OnePoll on behalf of MORE TH>N. 1,000 motorists aged 17-25 were polled.

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