Resources To Know: The MUTCD — A Book In The News This Week You May Never Have Heard Of That Impacts You Every Day

A relatively obscure book is receiving its 15 minutes (or more) of fame this week, The Manual On Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD).

This set of federal standards for traffic signs, road surface markings, and signals is a primary resource to know about, so we wanted to take a closer look – especially since it is in the news right now.

New MUTCD standards announced recently require compliance over the next several years, depending on what type of changes are required.

For example, states, counties, cities and towns across America will need to increase the size of letters on street signs for roads with speed limits over 25 mph from 4 inches to 6 inches by January, 2012.

Street signs requiring new reflective lettering which is more visible at night must be installed by January, 2018.

These required changes will affect both large cities and small jurisdictions across the country. ABC News reported on some sample impacts this week:

“In Milwaukee, this will cost the cash-strapped city nearly $2 million, double the city’s entire annual for traffic control.

In Dinwiddie County, Virginia – with lots of roads but not many people – the cost comes to about $10 for every man, woman and child.”

So where did these regulations, which some may consider to be overly-bureaucratic, come from?

In the early 20th Century, roads were promoted and maintained by automobile clubs of private individuals. Each road and highway had its own type of signage, without regard for directional assistance or safety promotion.

By 1927, the American Association of State Highway Officials (AASHO – the predecessor to today’s AASHTO) published the first standards, titled the Manual And Specifications For The Manufacture, Display, And Erection Of U.S. Standard Road Markers And Signs, a precursor to the MUTCD that is still in use today.

The first MUTCD was released in 1935, setting standards for both road signs and pavement markings. Since then, eight more editions have been published with numerous updates that include changes in usage as well as technological improvements over the years.

Some of these changes are particularly noteworthy. It wasn’t until 1971 that all center lines were to be painted in yellow (as opposed to white) and all highway signs were required to be in white on a green background.

The most recent edition (2009) weighs in at 864 pages, dictating required standards for everything from simple items like street names and route signs to more complex topics, such as how to designate Bicycle Lane Treatment At A Parking Lane Into A Right Turn Only Lane and Examples Of Light Rail Transit Vehicle Dynamic Envelope Markings For Mixed-Use Alignments.

Additions and revisions are recommended to the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) by the National Committee on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (NCUTCD), a private, non-profit organization, which is made up of twenty-one sponsoring organizations comprised of transportation and engineering industry groups, safety-oriented organizations, and others such as the American Automobile Association.

This takes us back to this week’s controversy.

Federal standards promote safety and recognizable meanings, but when those standards are changed there will be ripple effects across local jurisdictions with limited resources to comply.

In places like Dinwiddie County, Virginia, citizens may argue that standards compliance could take funds away from education or public safety.

The Federal Highway Association says the new regulations, written under the Bush Administration, are designed to be easily read by America’s aging population. However, the FHWA announced this week a 45-day period for public comment on the new rules, “a step that could lead to easing on the guidelines,” according to ABC News.

U.S. Secretary of Transportation took matters a step further today, stating:

“I believe this regulation makes no sense. It does not property take into account the high costs that local governments would have to bear. States, cities, and towns should not be required to spend money that they don’t have to replace perfectly good traffic signs.”

LaHood tried to put a balanced spin on the controversy by summing up, “Safety is our priority, but so is good government.”