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 Highways Agency.
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 services, includes the operators (until 2012), and can handle services on several roads which is important near motorway junctions or in areas with few services. 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.
The operator's name was supposed to be written in BLOCK CAPITALS, however this hasn't always been true. To exploit a legal loophole regarding advertising, many services chose to display their facility's names instead of the operator, making signs like this look really complicated. The photo to the right shows a relatively tame example of this. Consequently, as of April 2012, the signs should show the services' names instead, written in mixed case.
This sign, with the services' names omitted, can also be used on a-roads approaching a motorway. If the Highways Agency go ahead with their plans to introduce a star-rating system for services, then the results can also be displayed on this sign, but rest areas aren't included.
These signs are funded and maintained by the Highways Agency too.
Arguably the most well-known services sign is its equivalent of the Advance Direction Sign (ADS), Diagram 2919.1. 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. This was based on the motorway junction signage already in use: at one mile minimal information would be given, more 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 taken several forms over time, older ones are explored below, but the two most recent examples are given here.
This recently superseded sign has the operator's logo at the top (again, this usually includes brand names in order to exploit a legal loophole), and then the services' name, facilities and the distance. It also includes the price of petrol, but this isn't necessary any more and is never used as it has to be updated by the operator, either manually or remotely. As a result, whenever it is included it is always covered up. The operator's logo should be altered 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 symbols generally stay the same, although the disabled one was dropped in 2010 and partially slowly replaced by a picnic area symbol. If there is no hotel then the bed symbol will be omitted, and sometimes there's an extra one for LPG fuel.
When drawing the symbols, 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.
Rest areas still have a similar sign, but without the operator's headboard.
The old generic symbols, including the new electric vehicle charging ones, are permitted on the new signs, but they haven't been used as of yet. The symbols should come in the order fuel, refreshments, other, accommodation, and the same brand shouldn't be used twice.
Operators are currently keen to have it rolled out for the increased flexibility.
The changed headboard is repeated in the next sign.
At the start of the exit for the services comes 2920.1. This sign simply states the name of the services, with an arrow and the operator's header board. Some Moto services like to say "Services Frankley", rather than the more logical way around. That's presumed to be a Moto oddity and it's not permitted.
These signs are also property of the operator. They are there primarily to reassure drivers that the next exit is a service area.
In the example photo is a sign saying 'now fully open'. These used to be written in black-on-yellow and displayed next to signs for services which had been under significant refurbishment. They are supposed to be removed after six months, but almost never are. It's not clear if they are still allowed.
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 sliproad 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, provided this would lead to an overload of information. These are the Highways Agency'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.
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 is likely to be a high number of fatigue-related accidents. They are always placed two miles before a service area to remind drivers to take a break without leading to large numbers stopping inappropriate places, except for one sign on the M5 which is there as the road is particularly dull.
Contrary to popular belief, they are put up by and maintained by the Highways Agency, who normally choose the locations for them too. In the early 2000s some operators paid to have signs installed next to their services. 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. They don't appear to be in the Traffic Signs and General Directions (TSRGD).
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, allows signs comparing petrol and diesel prices at up to three services.
Finally, here's some examples of some sign designs which are no longer used. The first photo shows the original prototype of Diagram 2919.1; a grey-on-yellow version was 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. It was then decided to use symbols and an arrow (second picture). Those symbols were going to be in their own rectangles, but this was changed to tidy it up. The parking square was going to have a red background to have it stand out. This was revised to create the third sign which was removed in 1979 following the Prior Report, which suggested service areas advertise their fuel prices - and operators said they would only do it if their name would go on the signs too.