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BY 4.0 license Open Access Published by De Gruyter Mouton May 16, 2022

Redundancies of traffic signs: an exploratory study

  • Michał Dudek ORCID logo EMAIL logo
From the journal Semiotica


Against the background of studies on redundancy in law that completely omit the visual element in law and of studies on traffic signs that are laconic about their redundancies, the present study proposes more focused investigation into the redundancies of traffic signs. After presentation of the broader context of existing studies on traffic signs and on redundancy in law, and following a discussion of the direct inspiration for embarking upon research into this topic, the article moves to present and discuss six proposed types of redundancies of signs. Utilizing Franciszek Studnicki’s distinction between sign-types and sign-realizations, and given that traffic signs exist in various complicated relationships with each other, with written formulations in legal texts, and with the environments in which they are placed, the study comments on six types of redundancy: (1) sign-type–basic task(s) of road traffic law; (2) of sign-type’s elements; (3) sign-type–sign-type; (4) sign-type–legal text; (5) sign-realization–sign-realization; and (6) sign-realization–environment. Analysis of each type is supported through examples, various subdivisions, and additional lines of inquiry. The study has value for both strictly theoretical and more practical enterprises related both to traffic signs themselves and to the wider realm of visualization of norms.

1 Introduction

Even though traffic signs have been subjected to semiotic inquiry on many occasions in the past (classic studies of traffic signs such as Studnicki 1970 and Krampen 1983 are mentioned by Nöth 1995: 220), they still arouse considerable interest today. Relatively recent studies (the literature review below does not refer to textbook publications, in which traffic signs are treated merely as illustrations of some basic issues in semiotics, see, for example, Crow 2010: 31–32) include a general characterization of traffic signs (Cygan 2007), application of a specific semiotic framework to address them (for instance, Peircean semiotics, see Jappy 2013: 75–77, 87–89, 103, 164), and a consideration of a system of traffic signs as a kind of language (Świrydowicz 2017: 91–119), all of which mark a return to some of the most traditional themes in the semiotics of traffic signs. However, contemporary work has also raised much more specific issues, like the relationship between the visual and textual elements of traffic signs (Bartłomiejczyk 2013) or how representations of people in traffic signs seem to uphold gender inequalities (Bucchetti and Casnati 2019). Traffic signs also prove to be instrumental in broader theoretical enterprises, like expanding the theory of implicatures to visual communication (Frixione and Lombardi 2015). Even more original studies examine various unorthodox ways of using traffic signs and their implications for our understanding of these signs. Consider, for instance, the analysis of the practice of hijacking ordinary signs in order to convey some socially and politically charged message, from the perspective of a thesis arguing that traffic signs constitute a kind of rudimentary language (Forceville 2019).

Within this broad interest in traffic signs, especially noticeable is the significant attention they are receiving from scholars working on normativity and from legal scholars. On the one hand, these scholars often approach traffic signs from a very general perspective, addressing fundamental issues related to their normative and legal character. For instance, traffic signs are placed in the broad context of imperatives (Brożek 2012: 264–267) and background knowledge conditions on which a proper understanding of broadly understood normative pictures depends (Loddo 2020). Moreover, they are considered not only within some more well-known legal theoretical issues, such as the distinction between the regulative and the constitutive (Siniscalchi 2019), but also within relatively new oppositions, such as regulative adeontic artifacts–regulative deontic artifacts (Lorini and Moroni 2020b; Lorini et al. 2021). Some scholars deepen the normatively and legally oriented approach to traffic signs, not only by decisively arguing in favor of their normativity, but also by discussing their reliance on legal texts or their translatability into linguistic, especially textual, messages (Lorini and Moroni 2020a), and by emphasizing the importance of proper physical placement of traffic signs (Lorini 2019; see also Lorini and Loddo 2017; compare with Scollon and Wong Scollon 2003). Others propose a framework for analyzing traffic signs as visual norms (Maynard 2017) or offer a more practically oriented interdisciplinary, yet broad, take on traffic signs’ effectiveness (Cominelli 2019). On the other hand, the group of legal scholars who are specifically focused on traffic signs address even more detailed issues in their work. Such studies include a commentary on the international universalization of traffic signs (Wagner 2006), an analysis of what the presence of visuals of traffic signs and references to them in certain legal provisions mean for the specific approach taken in legal interpretation (Dudek 2015), a case study devoted to a particular way of interpreting traffic signs (Dudek 2018), and a discussion of traffic signs’ implications for understanding paternalistic legal regulations (Dudek 2011). Other studies not exclusively devoted to traffic signs are also relevant, including a juxtaposition of characteristic pictorial behavior instructions in Christiania with traffic signs (Loddo 2017), a socio-spatio-legal analysis of urban warning and prohibitory signs, beyond traffic signs, with special emphasis on their relations to legal authority (Mautner 2012), and an interpretation of the ambiguity of the American yellow light traffic signal and drivers’ decision-making (Marusek 2014).

This considerable wave of interest in traffic signs also among legal scholars is very important, especially when one recognizes the extent to which legal thinking is dominated by a focus on written or spoken language. This focus has in recent years been consistently weakened by the internally diverse and dynamically developing field of research devoted to law and the visual (see, for instance, Boehme-Neßler 2011; Manderson 2018; Wagner and Sherwin 2014), with which the burgeoning interest in traffic signs among legal scholars outlined above can be associated. However, despite the growing appreciation for the visual in law, there remain some areas of legal research that are completely oblivious to it, even in its most explicit instance – traffic signs. One such area is research on redundancy in law.

The concept of redundancy denotes instances of communication that are largely repetitions of other messages or are overly developed with respect to intended meaning. In general, redundancy is a relatively popular concept within legal scholarship, even if sometimes invoked to discuss issues that are quite far from its original communicational or linguistic context. For instance, this concept has been employed in an elaboration of the original take on stare decisis (Shapiro 1972), used in relation to certain conflicts and dichotomies in some general disputes about the law (Barnett 1990), and is patently foundational for the discussion of the highly specific issue of the creation of redundant doctrines by courts (Hessick 2016). Next to such expanded uses of redundancy by legal scholars, they have also utilized this concept in ways that are much more faithful to its original contexts. For example, redundancy is a driving concept in analyzing with a considerable level of generality the barriers faced by law’s addressees with respect to legal information, including access to and comprehension of legal information (Oliver-Lalana 2001). More importantly for this study, some legal scholars maintain the strict communicational and linguistic sense of redundancy and propose frameworks for identifying and investigating its particular instances in legal systems. Within this line of inquiry are found both narrower, more focused analyses – for instance, concerning how to treat seemingly redundant words or phrases when interpreting legal regulations (Bentil 1991) – and more general investigations such as how redundancy in legal text relates to its assumed feature of normativity (Wróblewski and Zajęcki 2017, 2021a, 2021b), as well as entire broad and thorough conceptual frameworks about redundancy in law supported by applications in actual analyses of various legal regulations. These frameworks can approach redundancy in law more generally, by taking into account both legal language and relationships between entire institutions (Golden 2016; see also commentary by Stein 2016), or more specifically, by clearly distinguishing linguistic redundancy in legal provisions and systemic redundancy that denotes an overlapping of certain regulations or institutions (Kłodawski 2017; see also his previous studies on redundancy in law, 2012a, 2012b, 2013).

Despite the variety of studies on redundancy in law and the highly systematic and thorough character of some of them, especially the frameworks just mentioned, none of the existing studies even recognizes the presence of traffic signs, much less takes them seriously in proposed investigations. However, contemporarily, traffic signs form an indispensable part of the law. Legal acts specify their appearance and contain various references to them, since different legal regulations essentially depend on the existence of these signs. Moreover, traffic signs are subject to interpretation in their own right by various institutions that apply and enforce the law. Scholarly work on redundancy in law that omits or ignores traffic signs is ultimately inadequate and incomplete in its analyses, when considered from the perspective of the entirety of law. In short, existing studies on redundancy in law do not address traffic signs, their relationships to other elements of law subjected to redundancy evaluation, especially legal provisions and entire legal institutions, and, in effect, their potential redundancy.

By contrast, vast studies on traffic signs do contain remarks on three different types of their redundancy. However, these remarks are usually quite perfunctory and ultimately scattered throughout relevant literature. For example, the most popular sense of signs’ redundancy refers simply to the not-uncommon practice of repeating the same sign in given area, especially along a road (see, for instance, Castro et al. 2004: 57–60; Lansdown 2004: 73; Mautner 2012: 213, endnote 4; Mitchell 2010: 61; Świrydowicz 2017: 111). Moreover, the redundancy of traffic signs is sometimes understood with respect to their surroundings, especially when the subject of a particular sign is clearly visible and could be regarded as easily understandable even without the corresponding sign (see, for example, Bartłomiejczyk 2013: 124–125; Castro et al. 2004: 54; Macdonald and Hoffmann 1991: 592). Finally, the concept of redundancy is also used with reference to the structure of traffic signs – that is, their constitutive elements like shapes, colors, figures, arrows, or even bits of text, some of which may ultimately be considered unnecessary (see, for example, Baldwin et al. 2019: 153; Hailman 2008: 199; Krampen 1983: 160; Mitchell 2010: 58, 60, 61). In short then, studies on traffic signs are not completely oblivious to the issue of their redundancies. However, there has as of yet been no attempt to address in a more focused and careful manner this topic’s clear entanglement in the law and its overall complexity that reaches significantly beyond the three types outlined so far. Such a state of affairs may be surprising, especially in the context of the well-known idea of treating law as a system of signs encompassing both “verbal legal acts and nonverbal legal acts,” including traffic signs (Kevelson 1988: 28).

Against this background of studies on redundancy in law that do not address traffic signs and studies on traffic signs that mention some of their redundancies only in passing, the present article aims to begin filling these gaps. More specifically, this study is meant to present more focused discussion of various distinguishable types of redundancy of traffic signs. However, as its subtitle reveals, this remains an initial exploratory study. While proposing various types of redundancy, discussing their subdivisions, and exploring tangential yet relevant issues that emerge from the analyses, this article should not be considered a set of ready-made answers to the issues raised. The intention of this study is to open a thorough and dedicated discussion of the redundancy of signs, rather than to provide a final word before such discussion has begun in earnest. Despite the exploratory nature of the study, however, the remarks below indeed begin to fill many gaps in the two discourses that constitute a point of reference for them. The proposed distinction between various types of redundancy and the discussions of them below do not comprise a full and mature framework, but they can be regarded as a starting point for developing such a framework. Most importantly here, they demonstrate how much more complicated the issue of redundancy of traffic signs is than the literature described above currently understands it to be. Before proceeding to elaborate this proposed distinction, though, it is useful to first present the direct inspiration for this study, which provides an appropriate impression of the complexity to follow. Even more importantly, it provoked the initial move to distinguish the specific type of the redundancy of signs that heretofore seemed to be completely unaddressed.

2 Inspiration

The direct inspiration for investigating redundancies of traffic signs comes from decisions of the two highest courts in Poland’s national judicial hierarchy, the Constitutional Tribunal and the Supreme Court. Both courts came to address the issue of the interpretation not so much of a specific textual provision, but of a certain traffic sign (visual) – the Constitutional Tribunal in its Judgement of January 27, 2004 (act sign. P 9/03), and the Supreme Court in its Decision of September 23, 2009 (act sign. I KZP 15/09). The question under consideration was whether Article 92 paragraph 1 of the Polish Law of May 20, 1971 (Code of Petty Offences, Journal of Laws 1971, no. 12, item 114), stating that “[w]hoever does not comply with the sign or traffic signal or a signal or command of the person authorized to direct traffic or to control traffic shall be subject to a fine or a reprimand,” can be applied to the situation of parking a car without paying a fee in the area designated by the informative sign D-44 (paid parking area; see Figure 1a–b; Dudek 2018: 774)?

Figure 1: 
Polish D-44 [paid parking area] (a) and D-45 [end of paid parking area] (b) signs.
Figure 1:

Polish D-44 [paid parking area] (a) and D-45 [end of paid parking area] (b) signs.

Before presenting how the Constitutional Tribunal and the Supreme Court answered this question, it is necessary to provide some additional information on Polish traffic signs. According to Article 7 point 1 of the Polish Law of June 20, 1997 (Road Traffic Law, Journal of Laws 1997, no. 98, item 602), “[t]raffic signs and signals express warnings, prohibitions, orders or information” (see Figure 2a–d for examples of these four basic categories of signs). However, in order to actually see Polish traffic signs in legal texts, including the aforementioned D-44, one must turn to another legal act, Polish Regulation of Ministers of Infrastructure and Internal Affairs and Administration of July 31, 2002 on traffic signs and signals (Journal of Laws 2002, no. 170, item 1393). The pages of this document contain not only visuals for each sign (so-called sign-types in the nomenclature of Studnicki’s well-known paper on traffic signs, 1970), but also descriptions of their meanings (or at least, the meanings legally intended for them by the legislation). The D-44 sign, so crucial in the context of the court decisions under discussion, was described in paragraph 58 point 4 of the Regulation on traffic signs and signals in the following way:

[s]ign D-44 “parking area” marks the entry into the zone where the parking of a vehicle is charged with a fee. In this zone it is forbidden to park a vehicle without paying the fee, with the exception of parking vehicles of persons or units for which a zero rate fee was set, as well as parking public transport vehicles at places designated for them. Sign D-45 “the end of the parking area” marks a departure from such zone. (Dudek 2018: 774–775; see Figure 1a–b for both these signs)

Figure 2: 
Examples of Polish traffic signs of four basic categories:
(a) warning; (b) prohibitory; (c) obligatory; (d) informative.
Figure 2:

Examples of Polish traffic signs of four basic categories:

(a) warning; (b) prohibitory; (c) obligatory; (d) informative.

In light of this description, both the Constitutional Tribunal and the Supreme Court argued that Article 92 paragraph 1 of the Code of Petty Offences is applicable to parking a car without paying a fee in the area designated by sign D-44, belonging to category of informative signs. This standpoint was based on two arguments. First, the description of D-44 in the Regulation on traffic signs and signals indeed contained some normative element, particularly in the statement “[i]n this zone it is forbidden to park a vehicle without paying the fee.” On this basis alone, one could argue that road users can in fact follow or disobey an informative sign (or, to be more precise, an instruction contained within its legal description). Second, both Polish highest courts seemed to have wanted to enhance their position on the issue at hand and argued that Polish traffic signs of their four basic categories – warning, prohibitory, obligatory, and informative – are in fact not disjunctive. In other words, a sign that is classified as informative at the level of the Regulation on traffic signs and signals can in fact play the role of normative sign (prohibitory or obligatory).

It is not surprising that both these arguments are entangled in a plethora of controversies, not only of purely theoretical importance, but also of practical, everyday relevance for addressees of the law (that is, road users). With respect to the first argument, one can consider distinguishing between the sign alone (a visual, non-textual medium) and the sign’s textual description. In accordance with this distinction, it is disputable whether Article 92 paragraph 1 of the Code of Petty Offences about “comply[ing] with the sign [and not with the contents of its legal description]” applies to situations involving the D-44 sign, and this controversy can undermine the position expressed by the Constitutional Tribunal and the Supreme Court. Their second argument, in turn, about the inseparability of traffic signs’ categories, is burdened with even more problems. For instance, from the perspective of ordinary road users, the practical blurring of boundaries between normative signs (those that can easily be the subject of compliance or noncompliance) and non-normative signs (those about which compliance is difficult to evaluate) ultimately advanced by the Constitutional Tribunal and the Supreme Court can clearly be detrimental, especially in terms of a decreasing sense of the certainty of law (or, at least, its very specific, yet ubiquitous elements). Leaving aside more detailed discussion of the problems with both arguments (on which see Dudek 2018: 776–782), the case of sign D-44 and the jurisprudence that has grown around it is crucial for the issue of traffic signs’ redundancies from one specific angle.

In order to recognize it, one should imagine literally any non-normative (warning or informative) traffic sign. Following the Polish Constitutional Tribunal and Supreme Court’s standpoint on the inseparability of the categories of traffic signs, two questions – or two possibilities – arise concerning such non-normative sign. First, does this sign realize a normative function (obligating or prohibiting some action), which is not ascribed to and realized by any other traffic sign in a given legal system? If so, then the originally non-normative sign in fact becomes a completely new normative sign – it obligates or prohibits some kind of action that is not obligated or prohibited by any other sign currently valid in a given legal order. In other words, in such a situation, the blurring of boundaries between warning, prohibitory, obligatory, and informative traffic signs does not lead to some kind of their redundancy. However, this is not the case in the second possible situation, namely, when a particular non-normative sign realizes, in accordance with the inseparability of the categories of traffic signs, a normative function that is already performed by another sign in the given legal system. In this scenario, the originally non-normative sign functionally becomes some other, already-existing normative sign – it obligates or prohibits a specific action, which is obligated or prohibited by another sign.

The latter case demonstrates then that the standpoint expressed by the Polish Constitutional Tribunal and Supreme Court can lead to a specific form of redundancy of signs, when two signs, formally belonging to different categories, seem to communicate the same message. Naturally, this redundancy is also connected with the increasing quantity of signs in a given legal order and such an increase can be regarded as mostly unnecessary. Why then would anyone like to allow two prima facie different signs that ultimately have one and the same meaning? Would it not be optimal to focus on maintaining or reaching a situation where every sign has an exclusive meaning, where no sign coincides with the meaning of another? While these questions are of crucial importance, before anyone addresses them seriously, it should be noted explicitly that a sign repeating the message of another can occur independent of the potential adoption of the concept of the inseparability of the categories of traffic signs. As evidence, consider the following example, again from the Polish legal system (the same as the one used in Dudek 2018: 781–782). Paragraph 44 point 1 of the Regulation on traffic signs and signals mentioned above describes the informative D-3 sign as follows: “[t]he sign D-3 ‘one-way street’ marks the beginning or continuation of the road or the roadway on which traffic is handled in one direction,” whereas paragraph 35 point 1, 5) of the same Regulation about the obligatory C-5 sign states that “C-5 ‘obligation to drive straight ahead’ … commit[s] to driving in the direction indicated by the arrow …” (see Figure 3a–b for a comparison of these two signs). Formally then, in accordance with the wording of these provisions, the first sign merely informs road users that “traffic is handled in one direction,” and the second sign obligates drivers to drive “in the direction indicated by the arrow.” However, practically speaking, they both seem to communicate the same simple message: “follow the arrow.”

Figure 3: 
Polish D-3 [one-way street] (a) and C-5 [obligation to drive straight ahead] (b) signs.
Figure 3:

Polish D-3 [one-way street] (a) and C-5 [obligation to drive straight ahead] (b) signs.

The case of the Polish D-44 sign and the applicability to it of Article 92 paragraph 1 of the Code of Petty Offences, or, to be more precise, the Polish Constitutional Tribunal and Supreme Court’s take on this case, illustrates the issue of the redundancies of traffic signs, but only to a small extent, since it allows us to recognize only one type of redundancy. Referring once again to Studnicki’s (1970) useful distinction between sign-types (visual, non-textual models of particular traffic signs included in legal texts, such as the Polish Regulation on traffic signs and signals – that is, “signs on paper”) and sign-realizations (concrete, physical realizations of models [sign-types] placed in an actual road environment – that is, signs on highways, streets, and sidewalks), the case described above allows us to imagine and provokes us to find instances of sign-type–sign-type redundancy (Dudek 2018: 780–781, footnote 12): when two (or possibly even more) signs essentially communicate the same thing, rendering one of the signs redundant and thus practically unnecessary (compare with the account of “[r]edundancy of different normative pictograms representing the same norm” in Christiania and relation between its “no violence,” “no weapons,” and “no bulletproof clothing” norms in Loddo 2017: 115, 108–109). Of course, as evidenced by the example of the D-3 and C-5 signs, such an outcome can also arise independent of a specific standpoint on the inseparability of the categories of signs.

Moreover, it is safe to say that there are other kinds of redundancy of traffic signs that are significantly different from the one presented above. The previously mentioned study that originally examined the Polish Constitutional Tribunal’s Judgement and Supreme Court’s Decision from the perspective of traffic signs briefly reconstructed two additional redundancies hinted at in the literature: (1) sign-realization–environment redundancy (when an actual, physical traffic sign communicates something perfectly obvious about its surroundings or when the sign is present even though its subject is actually absent in the environment); and (2) sign-realization–sign-realization redundancy (when on a given part of a road, the same traffic sign is “repeated” – placed several times, with different distances in between; Dudek 2018: 781, footnote 14). While these three types of redundancy (including sign-type–sign-type) can already be regarded as important and useful tools for thinking about both traffic signs and legal redundancy, there are yet other similarly relevant types, some of which have not been suggested previously, and there also remains much important work to be done on the already identified redundancies.

This paper, then, drawing inspiration from the legal case involving the Polish D-44 sign and its analysis (Dudek 2018), proposes to distinguish in total six types of redundancy of traffic signs. Traffic signs exist not only in relationships to each other (as both sign-types and sign-realizations) or in relationships with the broadly understood environment they signify. They can and should be analyzed with respect to the general function of road traffic law (of which they are practically an indispensable part), to more specific parts and kinds of legal texts, and, last but not least, to the particular graphical elements and aspects that together compose them. The following sections are thus devoted to the description and explanation of the six proposed redundancies: (1) sign-type–basic task(s) of road traffic law (understood as a whole, distinguishable kind of contemporary law); (2) redundancy of a sign-type’s elements; (3) sign-type–sign-type; (4) sign-type–legal text; (5) sign-realization–sign-realization; and (6) sign-realization–environment. Although the point of departure for this investigation is the decisions of the Polish highest courts discussed above, and for the sake of consistency, most of the analyses that follow are based on Polish practice related to traffic signs, nonetheless this paper has relevance beyond the context of Poland. Ultimately, the practices relating to traffic signs in Poland are similar to those in a plethora of other countries, which, like Poland, are contracting parties to the Vienna Convention on Road Signs and Signals from 1968. With this broad applicability in mind, we can now proceed to look more closely at the distinguishable types of redundancy of traffic signs.

3 Redundancy 1: sign-type–basic task(s) of road traffic law

First of all, one can and should think about the relationship between specific traffic signs (first their sign-types, naturally, and in consequence, their sign-realizations) and the general, fundamental task ascribable to road traffic law, of which traffic signs are such an indispensable part (not to be confused with the functions of visual messages as such; see, for instance, Moroni and Lorini 2021). For such an analysis, some basic function of the relevant kind of law must be assumed. For the sake of this discussion, we can assume that road traffic law as such has the simple task of imposing order on users, broadly understood, of different kinds of roads and sidewalks, or – and this is a more specific function – of ensuring the safety of those users and their property in these areas. Depending on which of these two functions is chosen, it can become questionable whether the same traffic signs should remain within their legally valid catalog. With reference to the first hypothetical possibility – (merely) imposing order – whole categories of informative and warning traffic signs can be regarded as unnecessary. This is because imposing order suggests clearly, among other things, the necessity of establishing and disseminating normative messages: instructions on how to behave, which, if actually obeyed, contribute to a certain vision of order, assumed by their creators. Informative and warning signs – as their very names indicate – are not normative (assuming the rejection of the standpoint of the inseparability of the categories of traffic signs).

However, there may be disagreement with the rather radical standpoint that imposing order happens only through explicitly normative messages. For instance, the Polish informative D-4a sign about a road’s dead end (see Figure 4a) is clearly not order-irrelevant. Information conveyed by this sign can efficiently reduce some instances of confusion in a given area potentially caused by drivers who would unknowingly (in a situation without such a sign) reach a dead end and then have to turn around. This example alone should convince us that instead of trying to verify redundancy or its absence in relation to basic task of road traffic law and entire categories of signs (e.g., informative signs), we should analyze specific signs individually. The effect of such an approach would be that some signs prove to be quite necessary for road traffic law to possibly achieve its goal, whereas others prove to be less-than indispensable. For example, consider another group of Polish informative signs, D-24, D-26b, and D-34, which indicate, respectively, a place with a phone available, a car wash, and a tourist information spot (see Figure 4b–d). Are these signs really necessary for road traffic law, if its main purpose is to impose order? Or even if its fundamental function is specifically narrower – to ensure the safety of people and property?

Figure 4: 
Polish D-4a [dead end] (a), D-24 [telephone] (b), D-26b [car wash] (c) and D-34 [tourist information spot] (d) signs.
Figure 4:

Polish D-4a [dead end] (a), D-24 [telephone] (b), D-26b [car wash] (c) and D-34 [tourist information spot] (d) signs.

We must remember, though, that the point of reference for this type of redundancy – the basic task of road traffic law – is disputable. Some may argue in favor of one basic function (like imposing order), while others disagree and advocate a different function (like ensuring safety), and the assessment of a particular sign may be contradictory from the two different perspectives. This can be demonstrated through a closer look at the signs introduced in this section. The D-4a sign is relatively easy to associate with imposing order, but it seems more difficult to prove its relevance for ensuring safety. Of course, it is possible to argue that successfully informing drivers about a road’s dead end can minimize the hypothetically dangerous situations connected with reaching such a dead end. However, this connection of the D-4a sign to safety seems ultimately less direct than its connection to establishing order. Further more focused inquiry must be undertaken to determine whether assessments of all signs in terms of their redundancy or lack thereof with respect to the basic task of road traffic law are marked with similar uncertainty indicated by the reservation “seems.” Nevertheless, it is already clear that some signs can be more confidently regarded as practically unrelated to a given assumed function of road traffic law as such. Consider, for example, the D-26b (car wash) sign from the perspective of ensuring safety. Only through rather circuitous argumentation could one establish a link between the general task of ensuring the safety of people and property and informing drivers where they can wash their vehicles. Most likely, though, such an elaborate link will be much less convincing than a sign whose relationship to the task of road traffic law is recognizable at face value, as for basically any normative (obligatory or prohibitory) sign.

However, it would be a mistake to think that often subtle, varying degrees of directness or indirectness in the relationship between specific signs and the basic task of road traffic law (or even the absence of such a relationship) is the most crucial issue to consider when investigating this type of redundancy. Notice that the discussion above proceeded as if road traffic law could have only one basic task to realize, whereas it cannot be ruled out that the better way to think about this kind of law is from the perspective of not one but several functions. That is, the function is not either imposing order or ensuring safety, but both imposing order and ensuring safety. Such an approach will naturally be significant for the results of the analysis of signs. However, the analysis’s relative (depending on which basic task or tasks of road traffic law are assumed as the point of reference) and subjective (“it’s all a matter of perspective”) character will remain.

Moreover, although this type of redundancy was discussed above only through the example of informative signs, it is in fact a useful concept for analyzing all categories of signs. For this reason, the possibility of some signs being redundant in relation to the general function(s) of the entire road traffic law should be kept in mind during the process of planning the introduction of new signs (perhaps some new ideas are not that necessary after all) or while reconsidering the sufficiency of existing signs (perhaps some traffic signs were ultimately wrongly introduced into a given legal system). It would be inadequate, though, to consider this type of redundancy only as a “test” that can help to identify signs that are unnecessary. The word “help” is significant here. In the end, there may be many other features of signs, beyond their congruence with the basic task or tasks of road traffic law, that may justify their presence in the current catalog of signs. Leaving this particular thread aside, this first type of redundancy seems also to have some explanatory potential. This concept can explain a potential situation where some sign-types are present in relevant legal acts, but their corresponding sign-realizations are absent. Perhaps the absence of actual physical signs of a particular type that is nevertheless still provided for in a valid legal act grouping traffic signs can indicate that this type is actually redundant in the sense in question. To be certain, a separate empirical inquiry, dedicated to the specific case, is necessary.

To conclude this section, we can acknowledge that this first type of redundancy to be proposed in this enumeration is far from the easiest to grasp and to investigate. This seems to be due to the practical absence of an adequate analogy between this type and other redundancies, those discussed by legal scholars included. For instance, this redundancy most definitely differs from linguistic redundancy (at the level of a particular legal provision, verbosity, or using words or even whole phrases that are redundant with respect to other parts of the same provision; Kłodawski 2017: 155–212) and even systemic redundancy (the presence, within the specific corpus of legal texts constituting a given legal system, of a provision or even an entire institution that essentially overlaps with another provision or institution already present in that corpus/system; Kłodawski 2017: 213–260). Ultimately, the sign-type–basic task(s) of road traffic law redundancy is about juxtaposing signs with the general purpose of the kind of law which they co-create. Other types of redundancy of signs, however, may be easier to grasp, since they more closely resemble those redundancies discussed explicitly by legal scholars – though these scholars refer exclusively to non-visual parts of law, whereas contemporary law, even at the level of texts of legal acts, also contains visual elements such as sign-types.

4 Redundancy 2: redundancy of sign-type’s elements

To illustrate the assertion above, consider another type of redundancy of traffic signs – the redundancy of sign-type’s elements. As will become clear shortly, this type bears some similarity to linguistic redundancy. To begin recognizing this redundancy, it is necessary to first consider signs not as single wholes that can be variously combined into larger expressions, as, for instance, Studnicki (1970) argued. Instead, consider each sign, no matter how seemingly trivial, as a complex composite of shapes, colors, pictograms (e.g., simple figures of humans or animals), ideograms (e.g., arrows or crosses), and borders. Just as in linguistic communication, whether oral, written, printed, or displayed, a conveyed message – for instance, a sentence – is built with different words (from different grammatical categories like noun, verb, or adjective), so also are traffic signs made up from various component parts. Moreover, just as within a single linguistic message there can be elements that essentially repeat the meaning of others or, even more generally, contribute to message’s length but can be regarded as unnecessary from the perspective of its core, intended meaning, so too can some components of a single traffic sign (first the sign-type, then its sign-realizations) be similarly redundant. Namely, specific components can be regarded as being “too much” with respect to the main message to be conveyed by the entire sign they compose, or they may be a repetition of some other constitutive feature. Some examples can illustrate these possibilities clearly.

First, consider two obligatory traffic signs from Poland and their equivalents from the Czech Republic (Czech obligatory traffic signs are specified in the Annex 4 to the Decree on Implementation of the Road Traffic Rules 2015), a neighbor of Poland and also a contracting party to the Vienna Convention mentioned above. The Polish C-1 and Czech C 3a signs both obligate drivers to turn right before the sign, while the Polish C-16 and Czech C 7a signs both denote a path dedicated exclusively to pedestrians (see Figure 5a–d). Regarding the first pair, we may question whether the indentation of the arrow in the Czech sign, which clearly adds some “dynamism” to the sign in comparison with the straighter, thicker Polish counterpart, is really necessary from the perspective of the simple instruction it conveys to drivers – turn right before the sign. Similarly, in the second pair, is the so-detailed pictogram of the pedestrians on the Czech C 7a sign indispensable for conveying the sign’s message correctly? Perhaps the nearly featureless and sexless figures on the Polish C-16 sign are just right (but there may be different takes on such figures as well; see, for instance, Bucchetti and Casnati 2019: 166; Forceville 2019: 107), especially when one remembers to take into account the pars pro toto nature of pictograms utilized in traffic signs (Kjørup 2004: 3505). If it is not possible to represent visually an ultimately plural and abstract category of pedestrians and one simply has to represent only a part of this group (on behalf of the whole), why add very specific details such as those used in the Czech C 7a sign? This illustration of redundancy of a sign’s elements in relation to its main message through corresponding Polish and Czech examples, along with its other possible instances, can be regarded as analogous to the relationship between serif and sans serif fonts. Letters, words, and sentences made with each have the same meaning, yet they differ in appearance. A similar phenomenon can occur with strictly visual, non-textual messages.

Figure 5: 
Polish C-1 (a) and C-16 (b) sign, and Czech C 3a (c) and C 7a (d) sign [(a) and (c) – obligation to turn right before the sign; (b) and (d) – path for pedestrians].
Figure 5:

Polish C-1 (a) and C-16 (b) sign, and Czech C 3a (c) and C 7a (d) sign [(a) and (c) – obligation to turn right before the sign; (b) and (d) – path for pedestrians].

Having elucidated the concept of the redundancy of a sign-type’s elements with respect to its intended message, we can now turn to the redundancy of specific components of a sign in relation to other component(s). Polish traffic signs alone can adequately illustrate this type of redundancy, without recourse to international comparative analysis of traffic signs as in the previous examples. Consider, for instance, the Polish B-23 sign, forbidding U-turns (see Figure 6). This sign clearly belongs to the category of prohibitory signs, which in Poland are generally circular with a red border and black graphics on a white background. Beyond these features, the most crucial characteristic in terms of their prohibitory function is their circular shape and color of their borders. These two features alone can be regarded as sufficient to express prohibitions, when compared to all other traffic signs. Nevertheless, on the B-23 sign, the black ideogram of the U-turn maneuver is also crossed out by red diagonal line. In the context of other prohibitory signs, which depend only on the shape and color of border, this supplement of a diagonal line can be regarded as too much – redundant. This case alone should convince us that this proposed type of redundancy is not only about specific pictograms or ideograms representing that which is the subject of a warning, prohibition, obligation, or information, but also about even more fundamental features of signs, such as colors, shapes, or borders.

Figure 6: 
Polish B-23 [no U-turns] sign.
Figure 6:

Polish B-23 [no U-turns] sign.

Regardless of the degree of detail necessary for analyzing a sign-type’s elements with respect to its intended message or for investigating the relationship between the various components that make up a sign, there are at least two important issues related to this type of redundancy. First, we should notice the lack of a widely recognized set of definitions of the elements commonly used to compose traffic signs. Although it is possible to construct such dictionaries, given the many alternative definitions possible, the assessment based on one dictionary of even a basic sign in terms of this type of redundancy may still be controversial from the perspective of other(s). Nevertheless, in order to further develop the sort of analysis suggested here, it would first be crucial to propose a well-defined point of reference for investigations of this type of redundancy.

Second, beyond the necessity of a special dictionary for this purpose, it is also important to constantly bear in mind the practical considerations related to traffic signs. After all, traffic signs are not only sign-types but also (and even more importantly) sign-realizations – physical objects that are meant to communicate important messages to the full range of road users in conditions that are often very dynamic. While the discussion of the arrows in the Polish C-1 and Czech C 3a signs presented above may be read as a call to present the ideogram of direction in the simplest, “rawest” way possible, this would be a misguided reading. The hypothetically most non-redundant form of right arrow, completely stripped of the thickness seen in traffic signs and reduced to a thin line ending in an arrow (→), is impractical for actual sign-realizations. This is because the effectiveness of sign-realizations is primarily dependent on their visibility. In a real traffic environment, a “turn right” sign with such a thin arrow, clearly visible only at close range, would be both absurd and dangerous.

In short then, these two concluding caveats, while presented with respect to very specific type of redundancy of traffic signs, are actually reminiscent of rather well-known general remarks on redundancy in communication. Most importantly, redundancy can be managed, and especially reduced, and on the one hand, there may be good reasons to make this specific effort. On the other hand, though, reducing redundancy in communication can easily prove to be too radical, rendering the message more difficult for its recipients to understand properly. Just as one should approach potential reduction of redundancy in communication with caution, so should one be wary when considering the redundancy of sign-type’s elements.

5 Redundancy 3: sign-type–sign-type

The previous remark should not be extrapolated to other distinguishable types of redundancy of traffic signs. Namely, some other types can much more confidently be regarded as negative, and thus should be reduced (if present) or avoided (particularly during the design or redesign of a system of traffic signs). In accordance with the analysis of the case involving the Polish D-44 sign and its interpretation by Poland’s highest courts – presented above as the inspiration for this study – one can speak of sign-type–sign-type redundancy. To reiterate, this redundancy occurs when two (or possibly more than two) traffic signs (first their sign-types, and only second and in effect, their sign-realizations) are practically “saying the same thing.” Therefore, such a situation can be regarded as a very specific instance of the aforementioned systemic redundancy. Just as some formally different legal regulations, expressed in different legal provisions, can ultimately significantly overlap or even constitute their own repetitions, so two (or more) traffic signs can be for all intents and purposes the same. As explained above, this peculiar situation has at least two underlying causes.

First, this type of redundancy can be a consequence of adopting the standpoint taken by the Polish Constitutional Tribunal and Supreme Court in the case of the D-44 sign: the inseparability of the categories of traffic signs. Just as was argued earlier, in accordance with such inseparability, a specific sign of a given category (for instance, non-normative) can functionally become another sign of another category (for instance, normative). In other and more general terms, approaching traffic signs and their categories from a very specific interpretative perspective – inseparability – can lead to sign-type–sign-type redundancy. However, given the generally controversial character of this standpoint (it seems not many would be willing to adopt such an interpretation of traffic signs that essentially explicitly contradicts their official categorization laid out in valid legal regulations) instances of this redundancy that are driven by inseparability can be regarded at this point as nothing more than a hypothetical possibility. With this in mind, the other mechanism underlying sign-type–sign-type redundancy suggested earlier comes into play.

Ultimately, this third type of redundancy can arise independently of the potential adoption of the controversial notion of inseparability. In a given catalog of traffic signs, valid in specific jurisdiction, there can simply be some signs that communicate essentially the same message. Consider once again the above example of Polish D-3 (informative) and C-5 (obligatory) signs, which both seem to simply instruct drivers to “drive straight ahead – just follow the arrow.” In this case, the repetition of the same message by (at least) two different signs is not so much an effect of adopting a very specific way of looking at traffic signs in general, but is instead a consequence of decisions made by the designers of the system of traffic signs. For instance, the Polish system’s designers may not have noticed the redundancy they created by including both these signs in the catalog, or perhaps they were aware of this specific repetition and included it in the system deliberately. At this point, we can only speculate which of these or other alternative explanations is correct.

What can be said more confidently, though, is that sign-type–sign-type redundancy can be dangerous and should be reduced or, even better, avoided. This is because it can be relatively easily instrumentalized in a negative way from the perspective of road users. To recognize this, consider a situation when a person “did not comply” with a specific non-normative sign (for instance, informative) that has a meaning very similar to, if not simply the same as, a given normative sign, regardless of whether this similarity or clear repetition is due to the first or second mechanism underlying sign-type–sign-type redundancy. However, in this situation the normative sign – the point of reference for the non-normative sign – is nowhere near the sight of the person in question and their action or forbearance. Nevertheless, they are still held legally responsible for “not complying” with a sign, which, as “originally” a non-normative sign, should not be connected with the idea of compliance in the first place. This is the danger connected with this type of redundancy.

However, further careful investigation leads to the conclusion that not all instances of this type of redundancy are threatening in the suggested sense. In the end, notice that so far sign-type–sign-type redundancy has been discussed through very specific intercategory examples, when a sign from a non-normative category (informative or warning) basically repeats the message of a sign from a normative category (obligatory or prohibitory), regardless of whether this repetition is due to the first or second mechanism for such redundancy. With this reservation, one can specify that intercategory non-normative sign-type–normative sign-type redundancy is most definitely dangerous. But what about intracategory redundancy, when two (or potentially more) signs belonging to one category say essentially the same thing? Is such redundancy real, or is it a purely analytical construct? Looking again at Polish traffic signs, which, as previously mentioned have many counterparts in other jurisdictions that are parties to the Vienna Convention, we can see that intracategory redundancy does actually occur. Consider two obligatory signs: C-1 and C-2 (see Figure 7a–b). Both obligate the driver to turn right, but the former before the sign and the latter behind it. Faced with these two signs, we may reasonably ask whether one can be removed and the other redesigned and adequately placed (in its sign-realizations) in the actual, physical environment. Perhaps only one kind of “turn right” sign would be enough? Naturally, a much more complex analysis would be required in order to confidently answer these questions, involving some kind of empirical study of real traffic conditions. Nevertheless, already here we can conclude that intracategory sign-type–sign-type redundancy does not have the same potential to be used against road users as intercategory redundancy, or, to be more specific, its non-normative sign-type–normative sign-type form. In the end, intercategory redundancy can also work in the opposite direction. A situation where an “originally” normative sign repeats the sense of some other non-normative sign is specifically irrelevant for road users, since it does not involve a sign imposing on them a certain obligation or prohibition that another sign was meant to communicate from its inception.

Figure 7: 
Polish C-1 [obligation to turn right before the sign] (a) and C-2 [obligation to turn right behind the sign] (b) signs.
Figure 7:

Polish C-1 [obligation to turn right before the sign] (a) and C-2 [obligation to turn right behind the sign] (b) signs.

At this point, a brief summary of sign-type–sign-type redundancy is in order. Given different categories of traffic signs, one should distinguish intercategory and intracategory redundancy. The former can be driven by adoption of the idea of the inseparability of categories, or can even arise independently of such an interpretative position with respect to traffic signs in general. Moreover, it has two forms. Its non-normative sign-type–normative sign-type form can be regarded as easily instrumentalizable against road users, because it multiplies the grounds for being held legally responsible. In turn, normative sign-type–non-normative sign-type form does not seem to be similarly dangerous and thus in need of reduction or avoidance. It seems that the same conclusion can be reached about intracategory redundancy – when repetition is present between two (or potentially more) signs belonging to one category. To verify the characteristics of the different kinds of sign-type–sign-type redundancy sketched out here, a much more thorough analysis of various signs is required, ideally of their entire catalog in a given legal order. Ultimately, much remains unexamined here, most notably intracategory redundancy within normative and non-normative signs.

However, the foregoing discussion already permits two clear conclusions. First, that the initial description of sign-type–sign-type redundancy as negative and dangerous must be qualified. Not every instance of this type of redundancy is negative and dangerous, as the discussion of intracategory redundancy and normative sign-type–non-normative sign-type redundancy has made clear. Second, the basic examples presented above should convince us that sign-type–sign-type redundancy is not merely an analytical artifact with no real-life exemplifications. On the contrary, it exists in the real world, but requires attention and examination to be recognized.

6 Redundancy 4: sign-type–legal text

At this exploratory stage of investigating redundancies of traffic signs, another type is distinguishable and imaginable that, by contrast, can currently be subjected to some doubt about whether it really exists as anything more than artifact. Just as we considered redundancy between traffic signs (visual, non-textual media), we should also think about redundancy between signs and texts, more specifically, legal texts (and their parts, like provisions), which are also a specific place of origin for traffic signs. Sign-type–legal text redundancy refers to a situation when a sign expresses essentially the same message (but, in the vast majority of cases, exclusively in a visual, non-textual manner) as a specific part of a given legal text. In this light, like sign-type–sign-type redundancy, this type of redundancy can also be regarded as close to the concept of systemic legal redundancy recalled earlier. But the question remains, are there actually any signs that repeat what is expressed in a given legal text, especially in the sense of specific provision(s) of a certain legal act, with the understandable exception of provisions that contain descriptions of signs?

To understand this caveat better, consider once again the Polish D-44 sign and paragraph 58 point 4 of the Polish Regulation on traffic signs and signals that describes it, or, in fact, any pair of sign-type and its legal description in a corresponding article or paragraph. It must be stressed here that every Polish traffic sign has a more or less elaborate description in the Regulation and, as such, a basic relationship to text. Naturally, delimiting and in fact excluding discussion of this basic relationship for the sake of a clearer presentation of the much broader issue of sign-type–legal text redundancy should not be understood as an argument that relations between sign-types and the contents of provisions that describe or explain them are not worthy of consideration. On the contrary, approaching this issue from a purely analytical, mostly pre-empirical perspective, we can already distinguish three possible situations: (1) sign-type–description equivalence: when a sign expresses neither too much nor too little in comparison to its description, nor the description in comparison to sign; and two types of sign-type–description imbalance: (2) when the sign-type is richer than its description, which ultimately does not do justice to the sign, or (3) when the description goes beyond what the sign conveys – the meaning of the sign that is reconstructable only on its basis. In fact, the third scenario can be illustrated by the now-familiar D-44 sign and its description, valid at the time of the Polish court decisions that instigated the investigation of redundancy of signs. The description of the D-44 sign quoted above referred clearly to issues that were not in any way possible to understand from the mere sign itself. Moreover, after some amendments to the Polish Regulation on traffic signs and signals introduced in 2013, paragraph 58 point 4 on the D-44 sign has been significantly reduced and simplified to the following form: “[s]ign D-44 ‘paid parking area’ marks the entry into the zone where the parking of a car vehicle is charged with a fee” (Dudek 2018: 782). This then illustrates the transition from imbalance (in favor of the description) to a state of sign-type–description equivalence. Let us leave for another occasion, though, more focused discussion of the types of relationships between signs and their official, legal descriptions, including more examples of how these relationships can play out, especially in the case of imbalance in favor of a sign over its description (not illustrated here), and whether this imbalance can be treated as another type of redundancy of signs. After this short but important detour, let us now return to the issue of the actual existence of sign-type–legal text redundancy.

The concept of legal text can embrace a plethora of documents. These include, among others, valid legal acts of all distinguishable levels (for instance, code, law, act, or regulation), various legislative materials, especially justifications for acts or their amendments, documents issued by diverse public administration institutions, and professional legal opinions and commentaries. On the one hand, given such an immense richness of legal texts, it seems likely that there are some instances of a specific traffic sign expressing essentially the same thing as some part of a certain text. On the other hand, the very same richness makes the body of legal texts impossible to research in its entirety.

However, we may be able to at least partially verify whether such redundancy is a real phenomenon or merely an artifact by looking more closely at specific legal texts that, given their contents and focus, are the most relevant from the perspective of traffic signs. For the sake of this exploratory study, two kinds of Polish texts have been considered: road traffic regulations and road traffic management plans (very specific documents that can ultimately be considered legal as well). While the former are ordinary road traffic legal provisions and do not need further introduction, it will be useful to briefly present the characteristics of the latter. Road traffic management plans are documents combining both written and graphic elements, most notably maps and situational plans, that specify in detail how road traffic should be organized in a given area. For instance, they determine road width, curves, turns, roadsides, and, last but not least, types of traffic signs, their number and the exact sites their sign-realizations are to be placed.

Having clarified the points of reference for this initial investigation concerning the status of sign-type–legal text redundancy – whether it is real or only an artifact – we can now tentatively (given the richness of legal texts) address this puzzle. Even a preliminary, yet focused, look at traffic signs and these two kinds of Polish legal texts allows us to state that there are no such signs that repeat parts of these legal documents in a similar way as some signs are specific repetitions of other signs, as discussed earlier. Nevertheless, this effort has not been in vain, because it allows us to distinguish some modes of how traffic signs are addressed or used in these types of legal texts.

When it comes to the perhaps less well-known road traffic management plans, it seems that traffic signs – referred to verbally in these documents, often with the use of their standardized signatures like D-44 or C-5 – are means to express in a very concise way specific details concerning how traffic ought to be in a given area. For example, consider the following passage from a Polish road traffic management plan: “The road should be closed by … placing signs B-1 ‘no traffic’ [in both directions; see Figure 8]” (Temporary road traffic management plan 2013: 12). Similar sentences and references to particular signs in these documents can be, and sometimes actually are, even more concise. For instance, if a particular sign forbids traffic in both directions and road traffic designers want to stop traffic in given area, they can reduce their formulation in this respect to “two-direction traffic on road X is forbidden by sign B-1” or even “sign B-1 is placed on the road X.” Leaving aside these and other possible sentence structures utilized in already highly technical and succinct road traffic management plans, we can conclude that traffic signs present in these documents through references to them (their signatures) seem to be analogous to words used in certain legal provisions. That is, instead of writing descriptively, “y is forbidden on road X,” these documents seem to utilize, with varying degree of succinctness, the structure “on road X sign γ [which prohibits y] is placed.” If this conclusion is correct – bearing in mind the large number of such documents in real-life practice and the fact that not all can be easily accessed online – then we can state that traffic signs (i.e., references to them) are used in an auxiliary way in these legal texts. In practice, they are treated as peculiar words that can help to communicate some intended meaning in a much more concise way than ordinary words. In this context, signs do not so much express something themselves, but instead are means for expressing something. Moreover, they do not seem to be redundant in relation to text. On the contrary, their use (references to them) in road traffic management plans can be regarded as a method for reducing the wordiness and overall length of these texts.

Figure 8: 
Polish B-1 [no traffic in both directions] sign.
Figure 8:

Polish B-1 [no traffic in both directions] sign.

By contrast, when it comes to the more well-known road traffic regulations (in this study exemplified by the Polish Road Traffic Law), references to traffic signs in particular provisions do not seem to be auxiliary, word-like substitutes to be used in place of ordinary words. Rather surprisingly and significantly, in the Polish Road Traffic Law, despite its length (152 articles) and its main subject, there are not many references to traffic signs in specific provisions. References that do appear are never made with respect to a single, clearly defined sign (for instance, by stating its signature). Instead, the most common reference is the phrase “marked with appropriate traffic signs,” but without any clear indication of the relevant signs within the entire catalog. This is evident especially in Article 2, which presents the meaning of various terms used in the regulation. For instance, point 14) of this article defines “tunnel” as a “structure on the road, marked with appropriate traffic signs.” The only reasonable understanding seems to be then that a tunnel is a structure on the road marked with informative sign D-37 “tunnel” (see Figure 9). However, even such a commonsensical interpretation can be subjected to doubt because Article 2, point 14) uses the plural “traffic signs.” In effect, even a seemingly clear example is not in fact so clear.

Figure 9: 
Polish D-37 [tunnel] sign.
Figure 9:

Polish D-37 [tunnel] sign.

Leaving aside other provisions that can be regarded as unclear in their manner of referring to traffic signs – both from Article 2 and other, non-term-oriented provisions – in order to make a point about the specific mode of references to signs in road traffic regulations, consider one of the clearest examples: Article 24 paragraph 7, point 2) prohibits “overtaking a motor vehicle moving on the road on the bend marked with warning signs” (for more on this example, see Dudek 2015: 366). The signs in question are signs A-1 to A-34, as specified in the Polish Regulation on traffic signs and signals. In this case, but also in the majority of the other provisions of the Polish Road Traffic Law that have references to traffic signs, the following is true: signs, through references to them, are in fact an indispensable, integral part of these provisions. In terms of mere interpretation, in order to properly grasp this and similar provisions, it is necessary to reach for the regulation that contains traffic signs, or, to be more precise, their sign-types. In turn, in terms of the actual, real-life functioning of this and other similar regulations, sign-types alone are not enough. Ultimately, if a particular bend on the road is not marked by any warning sign, then Article 24 paragraph 7, point 2) will not be applicable to a hypothetical overtaking a motor vehicle on that road. In other words, sign-realizations – actual, physical signs placed in a given spot – are also integral to provisions that make references to traffic signs (Dudek 2015: 366–368). To recognize this, consider once again the case of a tunnel. In light of Article 2 point 14) mentioned above, a tunnel is not merely a construction of the type that one would commonsensically call a tunnel, but a construction marked with a proper sign. Without a sign – both sign-type and sign-realization – the provision about tunnels would simply be incomplete, meaningless, and impractical.

As already stated, this pattern of the integrality of traffic signs to provisions that contain references to them, even if only very general, is predominant in Polish Road Traffic Law. It should be noted, though, that this act is not entirely consistent in its “treatment” of traffic signs. Consider Article 7 point 1 mentioned above, which states that traffic signs express warnings, prohibitions, obligations, and information. On the one hand, it is consistent with Article 92 paragraph 1 of the Polish Code of Petty Offences on “comply[ing] with the sign.” On the other hand, however, Article 7 point 1 complicates the status of traffic signs in the Road Traffic Law. According to this article, signs are means to express something, like prohibition or information – thus, they seem to be only instrumental. The rest of that legal act, though, seems to treat traffic signs as integral to different expressions of something else. They are then not only (expressions of) simple warnings, obligations, prohibitions, and information, but are an indispensable part of more detailed provisions, like Article 24 paragraph 7, point 2) discussed above, or Article 51 paragraph 5, ultimately similar in its treatment of traffic signs: “On a winding road, marked with appropriate traffic signs, the driver may use the front fog lights from dusk to dawn, also in conditions of normal air transparency.”

Further examples could confirm even more strongly the thesis of the integrality of traffic signs, but more important in the context in question is the finding that there seems to be no traffic sign that can be regarded as redundant to some portions of text within the Polish Road Traffic Law. However, when analyzing redundancy of one object with respect to another, the reverse order can also be considered. Signs do not seem to be redundant to provisions of this act, but what about the latter in relation to the former? In the majority of cases, provisions of the act are not redundant to traffic signs, but there are also noticeable exceptions. Consider Article 46 paragraph 4: “The driver is obliged to use the method of stopping or parking indicated by traffic signs.” Given that there are few traffic signs in Poland that are about stopping or parking and their specific requirements, this provision seems unnecessary, as it states nothing more than what is already obvious because specified by signs.

This preliminary investigation concerning the potential redundancy of traffic signs with respect to legal texts has been made only on the basis of two kinds of such texts, those that are most explicitly relevant to these signs. The analysis supports the notion that signs are not redundant to these texts (or elements of them). However, this type of redundancy is still possible, for instance, in the case of the introduction of a new sign, the redesign of an already existing sign and a change in its meaning, or perhaps even in the case of new texts or modification of existing texts, like certain road traffic regulations. Moreover, given the plethora of different kinds of legal texts, the existence of signs that are in fact redundant in relation to some documents other than those treated here cannot be excluded with full certainty. Nevertheless, investigating these two kinds of legal texts closely has justified the doubt about whether sign-type–legal text redundancy is real and not merely hypothetical.

The foregoing discussion has not been in vain, however. Ultimately, it has raised awareness of the very specific issue of the relationship between sign-types and their legal descriptions, like those in the Polish Regulation on traffic signs and signals. It has also led to diagnoses of the auxiliary and integral character of signs (references to them) in road traffic management plans and in the majority of road traffic regulations (with the exception of Article 7 point 1 of the Polish Road Traffic Law), respectively. The final two types of redundancy to examine, given that they are more or less explicitly acknowledged as real (not artifactual) in studies on traffic signs and are much less complex than sign-type–legal text redundancy, are presented in more concise way below.

7 Redundancy 5: sign-realization–sign-realization

After devoting so much effort and space to redundancies ultimately centered on the sign-types of traffic signs, it is now time to turn to redundancies centered instead around sign-realizations. It seems reasonable to first consider the redundancy of sign-realization–sign-realization, which should be understood as a situation where in a given area, especially on a particular road, a specific sign-realization (based on sign-type) is placed not once but several times, with more or less distance between the repeated signs. The most straightforward example of this redundancy is the practice of repeating signs that inform drivers about directions, places, or exits on highways.

On the one hand, from a purely objective perspective, these repetitions are unnecessary, both in the informational and economic sense. Ultimately, subsequent repetitions of a certain sign-realization do not provide any new information to road users. Moreover, placement of several identical signs multiplies the economic costs. On the other hand though, from the subjective perspective of road users, such repetitions are absolutely necessary. Given dynamic road traffic conditions – for instance, driving behind a large vehicle that prevents a driver from seeing a given sign – or simple momentary inattention, an insistence on non-redundant placement of sign-realizations would be inadequate and even dangerous. In order to ensure that the relevant message of a traffic sign reaches road users, sign-realization–sign-realization redundancy is simply necessary.

Of course, it may be wise to deepen the analysis of this type of redundancy by addressing, for instance, whether a practical repetition of traffic sign (vertical) and lines and arrows painted on the road (horizontal) can be considered an instance of such redundancy, especially with respect to indication of directions. Even more important may be an investigation of how to establish sign repetitions that are practically functional, yet not overly costly. Leaving aside these and other more detailed, technical issues for now, we can confidently state that this redundancy is real and that there are some important reasons not to reduce it. The second type of redundancy centered around sign-realizations proves to be more complicated.

8 Redundancy 6: sign-realization–environment

The final type of redundancy to be considered here is a very specific one: a situation where a particular sign-realization concerns something that road users can already easily notice and adequately interpret – in other words, when a sign relates to some aspect of its surrounding environment, but this aspect can be regarded as perfectly understandable even without the sign. This sign-realization–environment redundancy seems to be mostly caused by the mere placement of a particular sign.

Consider, for instance, one of the signs introduced above, the Polish informative sign D-37 “tunnel” (see Figure 9). If it is placed before the entrance to a tunnel that is itself clearly visible and easy for drivers to properly interpret, we may well wonder whether this sign in its usual placement effectively has any informative value at all. This case is just one example of this type of redundancy, which actually occurs quite frequently, as any driver operating within the road traffic environment can observe for themself. Naturally, from the purely informational or communicational perspective, instances of a sign’s redundancy in relation to its surroundings can be easily dismissed as absurd and meaningless. Such a dismissal would be adequate only if sign-realizations were actually meant exclusively to signify the environment.

However, they prove to be more complex, given the way they are referred to in certain legal regulations. Recall once again Article 2 point 14) of the Polish Road Traffic Law. It states that a tunnel is a “structure on the road, marked with appropriate traffic signs.” This example alone proves that sign-realizations are also instrumental in creating certain legally relevant states of affairs. In light of this definition of a tunnel, a construction that commonsensically can be regarded without the slightest doubt as a tunnel but which is not marked with the appropriate sign will not and should not legally be regarded as a tunnel in administrative or court cases. Certain signs then, at least those referred to in a similar fashion as in the example of Article 2 point 14), do not merely signify the environment in which they are placed, but also they specifically create this environment.

This observation in turn changes the general evaluation of sign-realizations that are obvious with respect to the environment. In strictly informational terms, such signs can be deemed unnecessary. However, they may play this additional and very important role in establishing legally recognizable states of affairs. This alone can be a basis for rejecting potential proposals to reduce this type of redundancy – of course, under the condition that the signs in question are actually meant to realize this function. Otherwise, in cases of sign-realizations that actually accomplish nothing more than to inform or warn drivers about things they can easily see with their own eyes, removal of these signs in order to reduce redundancy is less troubling. However, their continued use can be effectively justified by the same reasoning that supports instances of sign-realization–sign-realization redundancy, namely, ensuring that road users receive certain messages even in highly dynamic traffic situations.

Notice though that the sign-realization–environment redundancy can be understood in a broader way. That is, even explicitly normative (obligatory or prohibitory) signs can in certain situations be deemed redundant in relation to their environment, which in this context is understood not only in terms of natural conditions and material infrastructure but also embraces the actual practice of human actions in a given area. For instance, when on a given road all vehicles are moving in a certain direction and seem to maintain a given speed, signs indicating obligatory direction and a maximum speed seem to convey nothing more than the obvious and already noticeable. Of course, this peculiar form of sign-realization–environment redundancy is simply a consequence of a rather exclusively positive situation – the fact that in a given area, road users are actually complying with signs, obeying their instructions to such an extent that others can safely observe and imitate their actions. From such a perspective, even if sign-realizations in these circumstances can be seen as specifically redundant in relation to environment, this redundancy should not be reduced. On the contrary, its occurrence is something to be strongly strived for.

It must be recognized though, that the foregoing remarks on sign-realization–environment redundancy have made reference to a situation where the subject of a sign, broadly understood, is actually present in the sign’s surroundings. However, it seems that we can also consider as sign-realization–environment redundancy a situation where such subject is absent. Ultimately, if a specific sign-realization has been placed where there is no point of reference for it, then this sign seems to be actually unnecessary. Moreover, such referenceless signs can lead to some rather absurd situations. Consider, for instance, a Polish D-37 sign placed nowhere near a “real” tunnel. Taking literally its description in Article 2 point 14) of the Polish Regulation on traffic signs and signals, anything in the vicinity of that sign could be regarded as a tunnel. Of course, next to such an extreme outcome, this redundancy can much more straightforwardly be deemed negative. Referenceless sign-realizations can be simply confusing for road users and can result in dangerous situations. This observation suggests that sign-realization–environment redundancy in conditions where the point of reference is not present should be reduced, either by complementing the environment with the missing element (which often may be very demanding, as the tunnel case suggests) or by removing the sign-realization from the environment (which should not pose many problems).

However, such a blanket statement can be made confidently only in cases where environment is understood strictly in terms of natural conditions and material infrastructure. What about the redundancy of a referenceless sign-realization in relation to its environment when actual human practice in that environment is taken into account, for instance, when observable traffic practice on a road deviates significantly from the instruction of a normative sign placed there? Under the condition that the sign in question and its placement are actually reasonable and necessary in the area, the removal of the sign would be inadequate. The proper way to eliminate this highly specific redundancy would be to more decisively enforce the sense of the sign among road users, for instance, by deploying more police officers in the area or installing more road traffic cameras. These and other possible activities would most likely complement the environment with the missing element – in this case, road users’ compliance with the sign.

To conclude this section, given that sign-realization–environment redundancy can arise with reference to natural conditions, material infrastructure, and human practice and can also refer to the actual presence or absence of a sign’s subject in its surroundings, the characterization of this type of redundancy as complicated should be clearer. As with the other five proposed types, its presentation here should be regarded as only preliminary. Much work remains to be done on the redundancies of signs, and the discussions presented here should be considered an invitation to begin this work.

9 Conclusion

Despite the considerable interest in traffic signs, also among legal scholars and, more generally speaking, among scholars working on the subject of normativity, and, on the other hand, in redundancy in law, the specific topic of redundancies of traffic signs has been under-researched. This study, though exploratory, illustrates how complex this topic is. This complexity, naturally, should not be regarded as the sole reason for treating it as an important area worthy of further and more focused inquiry.

Ultimately, investigating signs’ redundancies should prove instrumental for analysis of redundancy in law as such because it will fill existing gaps in this line of inquiry, such as the predominant omission of the visual in law. Additionally and even more importantly, the proposed area of research can be very helpful in establishing what traffic signs really are, especially within a legal system. As has been demonstrated through the example of Polish road traffic management plans and Road Traffic Law, answering this seemingly trivial question in fact proves to be quite demanding.

Next to the largely purely theoretical or cognitive benefits to be gained through research into the redundancies of traffic signs lie some practical benefits as well. In the end, investigating redundancies will most likely constitute a basis and justification for optimizing some existing traffic signs. Moreover, studying redundancies of signs can also be very inspiring for all those who work on the visualization of various norms of conduct (legal rules included) in a more systematic way – proposing not single visualizations of single norms, but visualizing groups or even entire systems of norms.

In short, while the subject of this study may on the surface seem rather narrow, it actually has wide relevance beyond traffic signs. Nevertheless, the article remains an initial proposal and brief illustration of how and with respect to what traffic signs can be redundant. It is hoped that scholars will take up the proposed line of inquiry in order to deepen it, verify the adequacy of the concepts and distinctions introduced, thoroughly combine it with previous research on redundancy in law, and, last but not least, infer some well-defined practical recommendations on traffic signs in particular and on visualizations of norms more generally.

Corresponding author: Michał Dudek, Department of Sociology of Law, Jagiellonian University, Krakow, Poland, E-mail:
An earlier version of this article was presented at the conference 8th Zjazd Młodych Teoretyków i Filozofów Prawa “Granice prawa, granice w prawie” ‘8th Congress of Young Scholars of Legal Theory and Philosophy “Limits of Law, Limits in Law”’ September 3–5, 2017, Łagów, Poland, in the working group Wizualny wymiar prawa ‘Visual Dimension of Law’. The author would like to take this opportunity to thank the participants in the working group for their sincere interest and inspiring comments.


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Received: 2020-12-29
Accepted: 2022-01-14
Published Online: 2022-05-16
Published in Print: 2022-07-26

© 2022 Michał Dudek, published by De Gruyter, Berlin/Boston

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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