Why are warning signs red? © Getty Images

Why are warning signs red?

Warning: assuming all signs are red is the first sign of danger.

Asked by: Claude Paret, Twickenham

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It’s an open question. One physicist’s answer is that red colours are scattered least by fog or smoke, and hence can be seen from furthest away. Another physicist’s answer is that the receptors for red colours in the eye are clustered in the area near the centre where the sharpest images are formed.

A biologist’s answer is that nature uses red as a warning colour because it stands out most vividly against a green background. Other answers are that we associate it with danger because it is the colour of fire and blood.

Maybe this last answer is nearest to the mark if we go by the behaviour of elephants, who go ballistic when they see the colour red – not unreasonably, since it is the colour worn by Maasai warriors, who love to demonstrate their virility by spearing the creatures. That said, warning signs in China have black borders on a yellow background, so red isn’t always the first choice for signalling danger.

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