While there's a lot of detail here, this page doesn't claim to be a technical or professional explanation. For that, you'd need to consult the TSRGD, the Traffic Signs Manual, and the latest regulations.
These are the main signs which are used on the motorway to tell drivers where the nearest service area is. These are basic signs that every driver should be familiar with.
The first sign is officially known as Diagram 2918 and it simply lists the distance to the next service area. Space permitting, it should be placed after every junction (after the route confirmatory sign), except at the last junction before a service area. The idea was to encourage people who can't wait that long to leave at the next exit.
For a while it used to be that these signs would include the service area after the next one, but this was seen as unnecessary - perhaps too many people were playing 'petrol station roulette'. The original wording given for these signs was "Next Services x miles".
This sign doesn't take into account any rest areas. The sign can also be changed to say 'No services on motorway', this becomes Diagram 2918.1, and similarly Diagram 2330 allows for the more specific 'No services on M1'.
All of the distances should be to the exit, not the services themselves, as if the services are a few miles from the motorway drivers might see the signs and presume that they don't need to leave yet.
The signs are funded and maintained by the national highway authority.
Remote Distance Sign
The 2016 documentation began to call this the 'Remote Distance Signage' (RDS), although authorities do like to rename things, so it's probably easier just to call it the 'List', or more formally, 'Diagram 2917'.
If there is a need for more information than the first sign provides, Diagram 2917 can be used. It's always displayed prior to each service area as well. It was based on signs used in Germany in the 1950s. Before a rest area, a sign in its place saying 'Rest Area 1m' should be used.
This sign differs because it lists the distance to several service areas, includes the operators (between 1982 and 2012 only), and can handle services on several roads which is important near motorway junctions or in areas with few services. This can quickly become complicated so it's important to follow the rules for consistency, or only show road numbers to reduce reading time. Only the next or next-but-one service area on each route can be included and only no more than three motorway routes should be included.
If there is a junction with another motorway before the next service area but that motorway doesn't have any services, then 'No services' should be used in place of the operator and the distance. If the sign only covers the next two services on the road which you are currently on, then the road's number should be omitted.
On the original drawings, space was left for a star-rating system which was never introduced, despite a reminder being issued in 2008.
There is some confusion around truckstops. The rules state that this sign can display truckstops, so long as they're highlighted. But the rules for truckstops state that they must not be displayed on a sign like this.
Anyway, the operator's name was supposed to be written in BLOCK CAPITALS. To exploit a legal loophole regarding advertising, many services chose to display their facility's names instead of the operator, making these signs look really complicated. Consequently, as of April 2012, the signs should show the services' names instead, written in mixed case.
These signs are funded and maintained by National Highways too. This sign, with the services's names omitted, could previously be used on A-roads approaching a motorway. There is one example on the A282, which wrongly provides operator names. The latest version of the rules says this sign isn't permitted on A-roads at all.
Perhaps the most important sign is the service station equivalent of an Advance Direction Sign (ADS). This is Diagram 2919.2.
It usually comes half a mile before a service area but this can be increased if the motorway is particularly busy or if the signs would interfere with more important signs. It has been known to appear up to five miles ahead of the service area.
The idea behind this sign was based on the original motorway junction signage, where the bare minimum information would be provided one mile before, with more detail given at half a mile.
The signs are property of the operator, and are funded by them. They can include a 'now fully open' sign - see the next section.
This sign has changed a lot over time, older examples are explored below. As of April 2012 it is usually just an assortment of brand names - up to six are permitted, plus the operator's.
The operator header board is now displayed in the middle of the sign. The six symbols should come in the order fuel, refreshments, other, with accommodation last. Generic fuel, electric car, restaurant, coffee, and accommodation symbols from the old-style sign can be used instead, and all six spaces don't need to be filled. The same brand shouldn't be used twice. There are some guidelines on keeping brand logos clear, but logo design is mostly unregulated.
This sign design was trialled in 2011. It was introduced to address the problem where operators were creating subsidiaries with names like "Costa BK M&S" to allow them to promote themselves while simultaneously protesting against the regulations that forbid advertising. Operators were very keen on the revised sign, which they had been lobbying for since 2005. They rolled it out almost nationwide immediately.
Rest areas still have a similar sign, but without any branding. The branding trial only covered this sign and the truckstop sign. A service area name is normally given on this style of sign, but it isn't mandatory.
In January 2020, two modified installations of this sign were permitted. These would be placed either side of Frankley services, and would now display four symbols plus the current price of petrol and diesel, omitting the fuel brand.
The revision effectively reintroduces a feature of the 1982-2012 sign which had been totally left out of the new one, although it now displays two fuel prices instead of one. Moto announced in February 2021 that the new sign had been a success, and that "national network authorisation" had been provided by National Highways - though it's not entirely clear what this involves as authorisation isn't what National Highways are supposed to deal with.
Whatever the legalities, Moto said their new bespoke sign would be introduced to three more locations, and they suggested it could be rolled out nationwide, even outside National Highways's territory of England. It's not clear whether other operators will want to use this sign too, or whether this new dose of enthusiasm for advertising fuel prices will last and the electronic equipment will be maintained. (That's important because, while electronics are more reliable than they were in the 1980s, many motorways don't have hard shoulders any more which means maintaining road signs is difficult.)
In Northern Ireland, a combination of both the old and the new Diagram 2919.1 are used. The first sign is of the new design, with the six brand logos. The second is the old design, with a few symbols and an electronic board to display the price of both unleaded and diesel fuel. This is demonstrated on the right.
At the start of the exit for the services comes 2920.1, also known as the 'slip road sign'. This sign simply states the name of the service area, with an arrow and the operator's header board.
Since April 2012, the operator's logo has again been moved to the centre of the sign, with no other brands included. Between 1982 and 2012 it was positioned on the top. Both examples are shown here.
Some Moto services used to say "Services Frankley", rather than the more logical way around. That's some-sort of oddity which arose when a particular batch of Granada signs were manufactured - it wasn't permitted. These were mostly fixed in 2012. Until 1981, signs like these had "Services" in mixed case; from 1994 it was lower case only, but it took a while for this to catch on.
These signs are also property of the operator. They are there primarily to reassure drivers that the next exit is a service area.
In Northern Ireland, the old style of sign (like the second one pictured) is used for all installations.
Now Fully Open
In the second example photo is a sign saying 'now fully open'. These used to be written in black-on-yellow and displayed next to signs for service areas which had been under significant refurbishment or a phased opening. They are supposed to be removed after six months, but almost never are.
It's not clear if there is still a blanket authorisation for them, but they are certainly still used.
These signs help the motorist get from the motorway to the service area itself. Again, they should all be self-explanatory.
For years Diagram 2921 was used at the exit into services, which says services with a left-pointing chevron. The problem is that the chevron implies the exit is at or nearly at a right angle, which isn't usually the case. The top photo shows the chevron (and the problem with it, since the slip road clearly runs in a straight line) and the bottom one shows the newer alternative.
Since 2002 Diagram 2921.1 has an arrow pointing to the top-left, like similar signs usually found at a junction (those are Diagram 2910).
If the services are at a junction, then the legend 'Services' may be added to the usual exit sign, and to any other direction signs, unless this would lead to an overload of information. These are National Highways's property and shouldn't include any advertising or facilities information.
Where services aren't immediately accessible from the road, the legend 'Services' on a blue patch should be used to direct traffic to the right place. The clarity and quality of this signage can be especially variable.
Using the full name is also acceptable, but rare.
Where two competing service areas are positioned at the same junction, the regulations don't offer any advice as to how the two different destinations could be differentiated. This was never a problem for motorways (unlike A-roads) because two competing motorway service areas couldn't be built next to each other, but that rule was removed in 2013 and it could become a problem at Bridgwater.
Very pedantic note: Although there is no ban on using this style of signage to refer to "a generic description of a facility", it's extremely unlikely to ever be necessary. If you are on a motorway approaching a roundabout where one of the exits leads to a restaurant that doesn't qualify as a full motorway service area but you still want to tell people what's down there, you would be allowed to use the word "Services", but it would have to be written in black-on-white because it's pointing at a local facility on a local road. The only time it could ever be written in blue would be if you had to travel down another motorway to get there, in which case your little restaurant probably doesn't deserve all those direction signs anyway.
End of Motorway Regulations
Before the start and end of motorway symbols were introduced, motorway would end with a sign saying "end of motorway". Although this was initially used at services, a separate "end of motorway regulations" was later created. Its purpose is to cancel the 'no stopping' order which had been given at the start of the motorway.
Start and end of motorway signs now use symbols rather than text, but even so the "end of motorway regulations" sign survives and is supposed to still be used at the entrance to online services - although often the similar symbol is installed instead.
These signs are generally redundant or rarely used. They have been included for your interest, and for the benefit of anybody who needs to know their background.
Tiredness Can Kill
This is an optional sign reading 'Tiredness Can Kill, Take a Break'. In the 1990s the Highways Agency placed them along roads where there was likely to be a high number of fatigue-related accidents. The phrase has become a regular road safety campaign.
These signs are usually placed two miles before a service area to remind drivers to take a break without encouraging them to stop somewhere unsuitable. There are some exceptions: the M5 has them in several places simply because the road is dull.
Contrary to popular belief, these are put up by and maintained by the national highway authority, who normally choose the locations for them too. In the early 2000s some operators did pay to have these signs installed next to their service areas. No study has been done into whether they get more people to stop or reduce accidents.
Although no new installations of this sign have been put up, some have been replaced. It doesn't appear to be in the Traffic Signs and General Directions (TSRGD) and there have been a few variations on how it's used.
A similar campaigning phrase that is often associated with service areas is "check your fuel level". Again, while this is generally placed next to a service area so that the message will be more effective, no actual research has been done into whether the service area benefits from this, and service areas aren't able to request that they get these signs.
"Check your fuel level" is normally used during temporary government campaigns, or at places where vehicles running out of fuel have been particularly disruptive. Examples of those include roadworks and the approach to tunnels.
Services Open As Usual
In local roadworks, it is common to use "businesses open as usual" to try to prevent passing trade from being deterred from stopping. On the motorway, this is often varied to "services open as usual", even if it's not particularly causing confusion.
In October 2013, the Department for Transport announced as part their policies aiming to make life easier for motorists a new sign which would compare the prices at upcoming service stations. The introduced sign (right) was slightly different to the original.
The trial, running from August 2015 to 2017 on the M5 southbound between J17 and J30, allowed signs comparing petrol and diesel prices at up to three services.
After the signs were removed, the trial was quickly forgotten. Many users of the M5 had commented that the new signs simply advised that all service stations were selling fuel for the same price. In January 2020, a similar layout was used on two new experimental signs at Frankley, which would provide fuel prices at Frankley only.
The Diagram 2919.1 discussed above has changed many times.
The first example shows the original prototype of Diagram 2919.1; a grey-on-yellow version was also considered to have it stand out, as was a diagram having the exit loop back round. Motorway Services Ltd wanted to see the signs hung from bridges. On another early drawing, the cup was given a saucer, the fork was used without the knife, a tear drop was used to show petrol stations, and amazingly it was considered using a wine glass to symbolise a restaurant.
It was decided not to use the map. Those symbols were going to be in their own rectangles, but those rectangles were taken out to keep it tidy. The parking square was going to have a red background to have it stand out. The service area name was later added to the sign; the sign at Strensham hung on until 1993. The Diverge Sign had an arrow, the Approach Sign was exactly the same but without an arrow.
Anderson signs like the second example were phased out in the 1960s, and Worboys signs were introduced. These had only minor changes for service areas, to keep the signs in line with the rest of the new motorway signs. As before, an arrow was added for the Diverge Sign only. During the conversion, many existing signs were amateurishly bodged, with a name or new symbols added.
One curiosity with the Worboys signs was that the 'knife and fork' symbol was changed to a 'spoon and fork', which today looks very odd. This was the designer's choice; some historians suggest that buying a meal that needed a knife was unimaginably luxurious for most people in post-war Britain.
The Prior Report of 1978 suggested that motorway service areas should have to share their fuel prices. Operators said they would only do this if they could promote their name. This led to one of the fifth example. Previous signs were supposed to have been removed by 2005, but as of 2021 two examples from this set are still in place at Stirling.
The operator's logo should be adjusted to match the width of the sign and to be no more than three times the height of the capital letters on the sign. The petrol price used to be updated manually until the 2000s, when it started to be covered up or omitted. The 1981 TSRGD showed the fuel price as 45p, and the price gets updated in most revisions.
The disabled symbol was dropped in 2010 and was supposed to be replaced by a picnic area symbol. Extra symbols could be added to show a restaurant, hotel and LPG. The fuel symbol was reviewed in 1994.
When these signs started to be removed in 2012, many of them were original installations (dating back to 1982 or since). Some of them had been patched many times, with new symbols, new operator names, new fuel prices and even new service area names, but they were usually same 1980s sign underneath. These signs are now required to be removed by 30 January 2022, although as with most old road signs there are likely to be some that get forgotten.
The Diverge Sign was also revised in 1982, with the symbols being removed and operator header board being added. Some signs had the wording the wrong way round, reading "Services Hilton Park", but this was an error. Some service areas at roundabouts had these, or attempts to recreate them, placed on the roundabout. These signs were also replaced in April 2012, with a new version that has the operator logo in the middle of the sign. This is except in Northern Ireland, where the 1982 version is still being installed in places.
To save money, some 1982-style signs were created by simply attaching a logo to the top of an existing 1970s sign. The giveaway for this was the symbols being wrongly used below. Some of these lasted until the 1970s. One of these appears to still be in place at Lancaster.
The Keele Sign
A few people have asked about the sign at Keele. The M6 southbound, half a mile before the service area, has a sign positioned in the middle of the road, which promotes the service area and proudly boasts that it has "facilities for the disabled". It is now extremely battered and virtually illegible.
The sign isn't original to the M6 - it's Worboys style, and the M6 opened with Anderson signs. Even so, it was probably installed in the early 1970s, and must have been an experiment. The same style of sign was used on the approach to Strensham, but not in the central reservation and not for so long.
The Keele sign is now one of the oldest signs on the British motorway network. The reason it survives is simply that there is no reason to take it down: it's protected by a barrier that would be there anyway, it's not giving wrong information and it's not distracting. That part of the M6 has a grass central reservation which will eventually have to be replaced with a solid one, and when that happens, the sign will almost certainly be removed - but as of 2022, no such project has been scheduled, so unless the sign ever becomes so weak that it's dangerous, it's likely to remain!