The much missed “Z Bends” sign

Prior to the 1964 Regulations, a twisty road ahead was signed by an abstract representation of the road ahead curving around; it looked like a rotated Z. This sign was also well known across Europe, although they had largely abandoned it by the 1960s.

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A rare Panneaux Michelin showing a Z bend, from France. Picture credit: Google Images

It was versatile in that it did not tell you which way the road twisted, just that it did and that you should therefore take more care. This allowed them to be installed at the start of a difficult section instead of signing each individual bend.

1954_Highway_Code_-_Bends_for_1_3-4_miles

A drawing of the original ‘Z’ bends sign, scanned from a 1950s Highway Code. Picture credit: SABRE

Bends_for_1_Mile_-_Slimbridge_-_Coppermine_-_11569.jpgAn extremely rare example in situ. Picture credit: SABRE

It was therefore inevitable that by 1964, this useful sign would have worked itself into the new regulations and took pride of place at the start of many a wiggling country lane up and down the land.

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The 1965 Traffic Signs Manual tells us the following as to what the sign should be used for: ‘generally torturous roads where speeds should be kept low’. The maximum distance the hazard warning was permitted to extend over was 2 miles.

The sign was typically intended for use on rural roads, but it did make an unlikely appearance on the M6 at Gravelly Hill (Spaghetti Junction) in 1972.

Spaghetti_Junction_in_the_1980s._Note_the_Z_bends_sign_and_'Midlands'_lights._-_Coppermine_-_4556

The use of the sign here with a Reduce Speed Now plate would have required approval at the time. Also note in the background the early attempts at advisory speed limits on the slip roads; these still exist today.

However, for reasons the writers of the 1975 Regulations know only to themselves, this sign was taken out of use. In its place, sign designers now had to use the ordinary ‘double bend’ sign with a distance plate. The official explanation was this allowed drivers to know which way the road curved at the first bend. Unfortunately, plenty of examples exist where the direction of the road and the bend don’t match.

What is interesting, though, is that despite the saving for these signs having expired many years ago, vast numbers of them still survive.

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Showing its age somewhat but it still limped on in 2010 when I took this photo of one in Scotland.

The removal of this sign from the Regulations probably doesn’t bother many, but as a sign designer I would still prefer to have a distinct sign for a series of bends rather than using the existing double bend sign. The latter sign really should tell you the road does a switch from one direction to the other, it therefore carries a warning of its own which should not be diluted by a dual use sign. Alas, I don’t make the rules, I just have to abide by them!

Meanwhile over in Ireland, where the diamond sign is used, the ‘new world’ version of the Z bend sign is still going. They’ve used this since the 1950s, but it would look rather odd on a formal British triangle sign, so I don’t really want to see it brought over here. As an aside, the Irish are also good in that they distinguish how sharp a bend is, whereas we do not.

Flatout_100,_S-Bends_in_Ireland

Picture credit: Google Images

In summary, this is to me one of those changes that was not for the better. However, given the lack of care and the general attitude of simple replacement of worn out signs, I do not give it long before we see a brand new Z bends sign appear somewhere on the British road network. If that ever happens I would love to know if it actually has an adverse impact on road safety. I would suggest it wouldn’t.

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