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Highway Safety Systems, Traffic Control Devices, And The MUTCD

Traffic control devices fall under the general category of highway safety systems, and as such, they fall under the jurisdiction of the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), which publishes the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD).  The MUTCD regulates the use of both standard signage and powered signal devices.  This article will examine how the MUTCD governs the nation’s road signage, and how it responds to changing demands and trends.  For the purpose of this article, the term “sign” refers to a static, non-powered public notice, such as the common octagonal STOP sign.  The term “device” refers to a signaling device that relies on a source of electrical power, such as a traffic light.


The Purpose of Traffic Control Signs and Devices

The MUTCD regards signs and devices as essential for the safe, orderly flow of traffic across the nation.  To ensure that they serve their purpose, traffic control measures must meet the following five standards:


  1. They must fulfill a specific need.
  2. They must command the attention of motorists, pedestrians, and other users of the national road system.
  3. They must communicate a simple, direct message in a clear way.
  4. They must be respected by drivers.
  5. They must be placed so that they give enough time for motorists to respond to them.


These five principles underlie everything the MUTCD prescribes regarding the design and use of road and highway safety systems.


Rules Regarding Signs and Devices


  • Design

The MUTCD mandates that the features of signs and devices, including their shape, color, size, retroreflectivity, etc., should enhance the intended message’s clarity and ability to command driver attention. To foster universal recognition, signs and devices should be uniform in this design, and their characteristics should not be changed over time unless there are clear reasons for doing so.


  • Placement

The MUTCD specifies that road and highway safety systems and their signage must be easily viewed by approaching motorists.  It also mandates that they should be placed so that drivers can react to them in a timely fashion.  Sometimes this calls for supplemental signage or devices, such as in the event that a stop sign is obscured by a turn, hill, or other element.  In this case, the MUTCD requires that an additional sign saying STOP AHEAD be placed ahead of the visual obstruction in order to give the motorist warning of the upcoming sign so that they can respond safely.


  • Maintenance

The MUTCD states that traffic control measures should be reviewed periodically to ensure that they are functioning properly.  Depending on the sign or device in question, this may mean cleaning the item, replacing electrical components, or measuring its retroreflectivity in various types of weather.


  • Responsibility

The MUTCD states that each state shall have a highway department that maintains nationally accepted standards for traffic control measures.  In certain cases, these organizations are allowed to create their own rules that deviate somewhat from MUTCD strictures, but as a general rule, very little variation from the MUTCD is allowed unless state or local authorities offer a compelling case for the change.


While the MUTCD stresses the uniformity of road and highway safety systems, it also allows for their modification due to social factors or technological advances.  Rules regarding railroad crossings, for example, can be changed or waived in certain instances as long as local residents provide alternate means of protecting drivers from train/vehicle collisions.  Such changes have occurred in areas where community members have objected to the sound of train whistles.


Current Trends in Highway Safety Systems

Recent years have seen a number of changing trends that affect highway safety systems, many of which are discussed here.  Below are some of the more significant developments.


  • Crackdown on Distracted Driving – In 2012, members of 36 state legislatures considered new laws to deter distracted driving, including that caused by using a cell phone while behind the wheel, and 41 states have now banned texting while driving.


  • Steeper Fines for Speeding – In 2011, 23 states considered increasing monetary and other punishments for speeding, including harsher penalties for those who speed in work or school zones.


  • Increased Safety for Pedestrians and Bicyclists – The percentage of the population that walks or rides a bike regularly has increased substantially in recent years, a change that is largely due to growing public awareness of the importance of regular exercise.  In response to this trend, 39 state legislatures discussed ways to promote pedestrian and cyclist safety in 2012.  Many states have increased fines for motorists who injure those on foot or on bikes, while other states have implemented driver education programs in areas where foot or bicycle traffic exists in greater numbers.


  • Electronic Enforcement – Thousands of municipalities are struggling with ensuring public safety while dealing with limited budgets.  Because of this, the use of cameras and other automated measures has increased significantly across the nation in recent years.  This trend remains a concern for civil libertarians and others who worry about the potential abuses of this practice.


  • Fatality Statistics

In 2011, more than 32,000 people died while traveling on United States roads.  52% of those persons were not wearing seat belts.  In response, more than 30 states now have primary enforcement seat belt laws.  Studies show that seat belt use saved 12,546 lives in 2010 alone.


The annual number of traffic injuries and fatalities has seen sharp reductions since the 1980s thanks to improvements in road and highway safety systems, but with this positive news has come new challenges to public safety, including the dangers of cell phone use while driving.  Dealing with these issues will require efforts on the part of both public officials and private citizens.


The MUTCD fills a vital need in the United States for a body of single, overarching standards for traffic control signs and devices, as well as safety rules and regulations, but the manual’s contents is far from static, and is regularly reviewed and revised as needed.  This balance between consistency and flexibility ensures the MUTCD’s continuing relevance as the nation’s traffic system evolves further.