Oh, I see! moments
Travel Cultures Language

Oh, Deer! Road Signs in Different Cultures

by Sheron Long on March 31, 2015

Deer crossing sign in Hertfordshire, England, shows a running deer with a huge set of antlers, illustrating how different cultures interpret the same animal on road signs. (Image © Simon Gurney)

In Hertfordshire, England, the deer on road signs have a certain regal look
with antlers fit for a bejeweled crown.
© Simon Gurney

Crossing the Road and Cultures, Too

Why does a chicken cross the road? Ponder that all you wish, but know for sure that a chicken and a host of other beasts are gonna cross the road.

Humans devised the idea of warning signs to help you avoid a bump in the road. Governments and international commissions created copious specs (669 pages in the US Manual alone) to make sure the humans got it right.

With all the international constraints and the small size of the “canvas,” you might think road signs would be boring, routine, standard. But—surprise!—they show more about different cultures and geographies than you might think!

Deer Designs

Deer are native to every continent except Australia and Antarctica. That results in many different deer species across geographies and climates, providing a challenge to anyone who might want to standardize the deer sign.

The iconic deer on the US sign is a silhouette with a nice leap and a cute turned-up tail. But why are the antlers backward?

Deer crossing sign on an Idaho roadway, illustrating how the design of road signs varies in different cultures. (Image © jimkruger)

If a deer on this Idaho roadway jumps at your car, don’t take time to compare
its horns to the sign. Just get outta the way!
© jimkruger

The style, the balance, the angle of the leap of this American deer may seem like pure perfection, but it lacks the “moves” of the deer on the English country road.

And it’s also missing some personalized charm. The beguiling smile of the British deer wasn’t there when the sign went up, but the 3/4 perspective used by the designer invited some playfulness. Well done, mate!

For designers, the horns are always the dilemma, especially when more than one species of deer cross the same road. Maybe they see the horns like hair styles—this year, bigger and bouffant; next year, curly and compact. Perhaps the horns balance the angle of the leap. Or, do the antlers just reflect the deer in the ‘hood?

Three deer crossing signs: white, triangular sign with red border and deer from France; yellow diamond-shaped sign with black border and deer from Canada; yellow triangular sign with red border and deer from Sweden, illustrating how road signs can vary in different cultures. [Image © alblec (Canada) / © 221A (Sweden)]

Deer crossing signs (l to r) from France—an elegant deer, of course, on its way to Paris—
and from Canada (© alblec), and Sweden (© 221A)

Despite many attempts, the shapes of warning signs defy international standardization—diamond-shaped in the US and Canada, triangular in most of the EU. Background colors and border styles vary, too. Like beauty, the efficacy of warnings is clearly in the eye of the beholder.

The Happiness Index

The UN looks at happiness across countries by polling citizens and collecting information on several happiness indexes. It has set every March 20 as the International Day of Happiness.

In 2013, the UN released its World Happiness Report. Denmark came in first and several other Scandinavian countries—Norway, Sweden, and Finland—ranked in the top ten. A half-world away, tiny Costa Rica, the land of pura vidaranked #12; the US, #17; and Spain, #38.

Though there’s no way to know if the happiness indexes pertain to the bovine population, it is curious that the wag of the tail on cattle crossing signs in Spain and Costa Rica are oh-so-different!

Two road signs warning of cattle crossings, the top by a road in Spain and the bottom by a road in Costa Rica, illustrating how different cultures depict the same animal on road signs. [Image © percds (top) and © Sheron Long (bottom)]

Wag more. Moo less!
Cattle crossing signs in Spain (top) and in Costa Rica (bottom).
© percds / © Sheron Long

Fact and Feeling

Happiness is not the only emotion that springs from the metal of a road sign. The mellow California sign below would have you thinking, “C’mon, wild boars are mothers, too.” But it’s the Japanese sign that gets it right.

Two road signs warning of a wild boar crossing, the one on the left from Japan and the one on the right from Carmel, CA,  illustrating the same animal depicted on road signs in different cultures.  (Image © Spontaneous Pictures (L) and © Sheron Long (R)

The personality of a wild boar does not change because it migrates to California!
© Spontaneous Pictures (l) / © Sheron Long (r)

In some parts of the world, the road signs are factually correct, delivering on their promise.

Llama and Vicuña crossing sign in the highlands of Bolivia with the corresponding animals crossing behind it, illustrating how road signs vary in different cultures. (Image © javarman3)

Llama and vicuña crossing in the Bolivian highlands–a wooly meet-up!
© javarman3

In others, not so much. This road sign throws you a curve—it promises straight-line black-and-white stripes and delivers two rounds of fluffy brown feathers.

Zebra crossing sign with "No Fences" warning in Namibia with ostriches behind it, illustrating that road signs vary in different cultures. (Image © Bryta)

“No fences” in Namibia means ostriches and other beasts can crash the party.
© Bryta

Confusion and Contradiction 

Svalbard, a cluster of islands about midway between Norway and the North Pole, has a small permanent population and polar bears. It needs warning signs, of course, and this one says, “Applies throughout Svalbard.” But still you have to wonder why it’s there—if you’re walking in an Arctic snowstorm and encounter a polar bear, will you see it?

Polar bear crossing sign on a snow-covered road in Norway, illustrating how animals vary on road signs in different countries. (Image © Avatar_023)

White on white polar bear crossing in Norway
© Avatar_023

If you’re driving through the warmer climate of Namibia, it’s good to be on the lookout for ground squirrels. They live in bands, sometimes in groups of 20, all of which might be milling around the same crossing.

But what’s the message on the crossing sign? Are the ground squirrels already road kill, or are they slow? Or, are they road kill because they’re slow? Or, do YOU go slow so you don’t end up as road kill?

Ground squirrel crossing sign     with a "Dead Slow" notice in Namibia, illustrating  the variety of animals on road signs in different cultures. (Image © namibelephant)

Ground squirrel crossing in Namibia
© namibelephant

Confusion can turn to contradiction. The red sign says STOP in Arabic, but apparently camels are exempt.

Stop sign and camel crossing directional sign toward the Sahara desert in Morocco, illustrating the variety of animals on road signs in different cultures. (Image © Jann Huizenga)

In Morocco, red stop sign and camel directional sign toward the Sahara desert. Stop or go?
© Jann Huizenga

Clarity is the gold standard for warning signs, and some rise to the challenge. Take this one in South Africa—it’s clear, it’s realer than real, and if you do what it says, you’ll never feel as silly as a baboon.

Baboon warning sign in Cape Town, South Africa, illustrating the variety of animals on road signs in different cultures.  (Image © Micky Wiswedel)

Special precautions prevail at this baboon crossing in Cape Town, South Africa.
© Micky Wiswedel

Where in the World Are You?

Get ready to say, “Oh, I see!” It’s your turn to cross the road into different cultures and match the road signs to these map points: 

1. Germany  2. Nicaragua  3. New Zealand  4. Thailand  5. South Africa  6. France

Warning signs for animal crossings---penguins, turtles and snakes, moose, elephants, daisies, and crabs, all illustrating how different cultures represent animals on road signs. (Images---A: © Oralleff / B: © Sheron Long / C: © Andreas Weber / D: © Tim Arbaev / E: © David Callan / F: © Steve B Photography

Oh, I see! Do U?
Credits (A-F): © Oralleff / © Sheron Long / © Andreas Weber
© Tim Arbaev / © David Callan / © Steve B Photography

Different wildlife, different cultures, different languages. They all hold the clues. Good luck, and STOP to check your road sign answers below.

Comment on this post below, or inspire insight with your own OIC Moment here.

With appreciation to Thinkstock and iStock for images except those copyrighted by Sheron Long.
Answers: 1. Germany is C, a moose crossing at the Christmas market in the Königsplatz in Kassel, Germany. 2. Nicaragua is F, a crab crossing by Long Bay on Corn Island. 3. New Zealand is A, a penguin crossing on the South Island. 4. Thailand is D, an elephant crossing in Phuket. 5. South Africa is E, a dassie crossing at KwaZulu-Natal. 6. France is B, a snake and turtle crossing in the swampy lands of the Camargue.


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