Episode 9 – Signs, Striping, MUTCD

Topics: Signs and Striping on our Nation’s Roads. The National Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD)

Talking Traffic Episode 9 – Signs, Striping, MUTCD

Hello, and welcome to Episode 9 of Talking Traffic. Today’s episode is about something you might not think too much of: The signs and road markings that guide you to where you are going. I’m Bill Ruhsam and I produce this podcast and its sister website, talking traffic.org. Today is Monday January 21, 2008.

I have mentioned before that I am a professional traffic engineer. It is my specialization to deal with things like road signs and striping. All in all, it’s not that complicated, but being familiar with the rules and regulations takes a bit of work. And there’s a one stop shop to learn about it. It’s called the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, otherwise known as the MUTCD. This document is maintained a published by the Federal Highway Administration and is some lovely bedtime reading. It contains all of the national standards for traffic control devices, from the stripe on the road to the cross-bucks at a railroad crossing. The MUTCD is not so much the law of the land as an edict laid down by the Feds containing a big stick. Non compliance with the manual will jeopardize federal funding for the states and counties and cities that do the work. Also, if you are a government agency with responsibility for traffic control devices is not in compliance with the MUTCD, the likelihood of a successful lawsuit goes way up. But the MUTCD isn’t entirely about money, it’s also primarily there to promote a Uniform set of guidelines for the erection of traffic control. Remember, the name is Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices. This ensures that whether you’re driving in Los Angeles, California, New York, NY, or Topeka, Kansas, you should be presented with devices which aren’t a surprise to your expectations.

Obviously, there are differences between jurisdictions. Some of these differences depend on opinion and policy, others are set by the climate and weather. For example, you won’t see as many Raised Reflectors on the roads in the north where a lot of snowplow activity can be expected. Some states prefer stripe on the road that is 4 inches wide. Some prefer 5 inches and others 6. These differences tend to more of degree than of type, as there are only so many ways that you can place a stop sign. The real differences occur in the optional signs categories. Warning signs such as “BRIDGE ICES BEFORE ROAD” sees applications ranging from Put one before EVERY Bridge, to never put them up, EVER, or fold them up in the summer and only display them in the winter. There are all sorts of examples, and you’ll probably see them if you start paying attention to the signing as you drive.

Which brings me to the preachy part of this podcast. As I mentioned, I’m a traffic engineer. I’m a traffic engineer, but I HATE signs. Signs drive me nuts. They clutter up the roadside, create hazards, and generally cause problems. I’m not referring to the signs which are necessary for traffic control or guidance, things like Stop Signs, Speed Limit Signs, or Route Guide Signs. No, I’m referring to signs which may or may not do any good, but generally are jus there to be struck by errant drivers. According to the MUTCD, and I’m only quoting this because it’s a condensed bit of wisdom that I can hardly improve upon, a traffic control devices has to meet five basic requirements in order to be effective. It must Fulfill a need, Command Attention, Convey a Clear meaning, Command respect, and Give adequate time for driver response. Many many mnay! Signs out there on the roads do none of these things. There is a new sign that was put up at the driveway entrance to our local coffeeshop. It says, “Do Not Block Driveway.” Ok, you think, thta seems reasonable, but this driveway is about 500 feet back from an intersection where the traffic backs up 1/2 mile or so everymorning. Useful sign, no way. It’s in the right of way of the road, so why is it there? I’m sure the county didn’t put it up because the lettering is non-standard. The property owner had it placed, but the mounting is a standard one so the county may have approved. Signs like this are all over the place becasue it’s easier for the jurisdiction in charge of the area to say to a property owner, “go ahead and put it up, if you pay for it, and follow these guidelines.” The HUGE, in my opinion, problem with that is a plethora of these types of signs will reduce the impact that other, useful signs have. If you’re conditioned to ignore silly signs, you’ll start to ignore others. Then there are legitimate regulatory signs that are overused to the point of invisibility. One particular example is the Pass On Right sign, that you see placed on a center median to inform drivers to pass to the right of the sign. This sign is black on white, with a hump at the top of the sign pointing down, and an arrow that points from the bottom of the sign up, to the right of the hump. You will sometimes see these signs placed at the nose of EVERY single median in a town. Utterly totally useless. One sign, at each end of the median, where it begins and ends, is about all you need, maybe not even that. More than that and people just ignore them. They fail the second requirement of effective traffic control, commanding attention. Sit for a second. Think about your commute, or your most recent drive. Where are the traffic signs? What are they telling you? I bet you can’t tell me more than a 10th of what’s actually out there. Heck, this is my *job* and I don’t remember what signs are on my commute, because I don’t *see* them anymore. They are only doing their work for people who are really looking, and how many of the signs out there are actually communicating a useful piece of information to the driver? Probably about half. Try this exercise: quickly write down what signs you think are between you and your nearest grocery store. Next time you make that drive, watch and count how many signs you pass. I think you’ll be surprised.

All right, done with peachiness. On to slightly more informative content. The traffic control devices that are out there can communicate information to you by their color. When you look at a long-line stripe on the road like the ones moving down the edges of the pavement or the center of the roadway, generally Yellow means Traffic on the other side of the line is going the other direction. White means traffic is moving with you. Double lines mean do not cross, thick lines mean you may cross, but with caution, the thicker the line, the more caution you must exhibit. Now, I’m not a lawyer, and nothing in this podcast should be taken as legal advice, but unless your state has a law specifically prohibiting it, it is *not* illegal to cross the thick white lines of a entrance or exit ramp. That is a permitted movement if you exercise the necessary caution but you’re screwed if you do that and get in a wreck. Also, if a cop pulls you over and gives you a ticket for failure to yield right of way, or something similar, don’t’ call me. I’ll be away from my phone.

When it come regulatory signs, things are just as clear cut as with striping. Any sign that is Black and White is a regulatory sign and is telling you something that must be obeyed. Speed Limits, No Turn on Red, Do Not Pass, Keep Right, all these must be obeyed or you can be ticketed. Similarly with any sign that is White on Red, or Red on Black and White like Stop Signs, and Yield Signs, and No Left Turn signs. These are conditions that you cannot ignore.

Warning signs are black on Yellow. Warning signs alert you to conditions that you need to be aware of to navigate the roadway safely. A curve-ahead sign, the diamond black-on-yellow sign with a thick arrow curving left or right is telling you that the curve ahead, well, you might want to slow down for it. Sometimes you’ll see a small square sign beneath a warning sign with a speed on it. That curve sign I just mentioned might have ea 45 MPH plaque, which is telling you that a reasonable speed to get around the bend is 45. If you’re on a 65 mph road and the plaque says 25, I advise you to hit the brakes immediately. Something that a lot of people don’t know, however is that the warning speeds are not regulatory. You don’t have to obey them. As long as you are not exceeding the speed limit on the last black and white speed limit sing, you’re obeying the speed law. Of course (again, don’t call me if you get a ticket) the cop could pull you over for driving faster than conditions allow, which is a nice catchall in most jurisdictions for behavior that police officer doesn’t’ like. But if you show up in court and demonstrate to the judge that you were obeying the speed limit, and there weren’t any adverse conditions like rain or snow or night, than you are within the law and your ticket will (maybe) get dismissed.

Green signs are guide signs. But not all guide signs are green. Have no fear, it’s pretty obvious what you’re looking at. If the sign is telling how to get somewhere, or it’s pointing toward a town, or giving you a distance, or calling our a route number, it’s a guide sign. The exception to this rule is service signs, which are blue. Service signs call out things like rest areas and scenic vistas and weather information radio channels. Again, they’re pretty obvious.

Orange signs are for construction. If it’s orange, it’s temporary, but can’t be ignored. You disobey construction warning signs at your peril. Most states are cracking down on violations in construction zones with an iron rod. As a former DOT employee, I beg you to slow down going through construction zones. It’s one of the more dangerous jobs in the country, and it really won’t add long to your travel time to give the construction workers a little respect.

Recreational and cultural interest signs are brown. These are Signs pointing you at a stat park, or a hiking trail, or a boat dock.

The last color category is the fluorescent yellow-green signs. These signs are used for School Zones and Bicycle lanes. They are bight as can be and you can’t miss them.

The Last LAST category is Pink. Pink sings are designated for incident management. I have never seen one in use.

There is also information you can derive from the shape of the sign. Octagonal signs are stop signs. Diamond signs are warning signs. Rectangular signs can be..well,…anything almost. There’s a lot of information there, if you know how to interpret it. It might be taught nowadays in drivers education class, but I don’t’ remember what it was I learned before I took my driver’s test. I remember a lot of watching gory movies like Blood on the Highway.

I began this monologue talking about the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices. it’s the bible for traffic engineers here in the United States. It covers a vast number of situations, and feel free to download and read it! You just might be interested, or it might be that perfect insomnia cure you’re looking for. You’ll also see just how thin a scratch I made in the surface with this podcast. Ohhh, the episodes I can pull out of the MUTCD, but I don’t want to bore my audience to death. The lesson to take away from this episode is: There’s a set of rules in the United States that governs how traffic control devices are to be placed in order to ensure a uniform roadside environment, and to not violate driver expectancy. Although diferences exist thoughout the country, the important things like regulatory signs and basic colors and shapes will remain the same.

Last episode, I said I would do something off the wall, maybe even funny. Well, next week is going to concentrate on strange facts, interesting tales, and myths of the transportation industry. Stay tuned.

This episode of talking traffic is released under a creative commons 3.0 attribution, non commercial no derivatives license. The music heard was a sampling from Tesla’s cover of Five Man Electrical Band’s, Signs. I’m still in search for some podcast theme music, but Mercurial Girl seems to be coming up into first place in thta race. We’ll see.

I’m going to remind everyone once more that I’m not a lawyer and you take any of the opinions expressed in this podcast with a healthy dose of salt. All I can say is that I’ve been doing this for a little while and learned a few things. The police may not be impressed by that.

if you have any comments or questions, or want to send me the story of how my opinions got you arrested and your license revoked, send an email to Bill at Talkingtraffic.org. Or you can leave a comment on the show notes at www.talkingtraffic.org. This is the ninth episode, and I’m going to start ramping up a bit of marketing for the show, so I welcome all feedback. Take care, and obey those traffic laws!

FHWA: Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices
Music: Five Star Fall, and “Signs” by Tesla.

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15 Responses to Episode 9 – Signs, Striping, MUTCD

  1. James Cronen says:

    I recently got back from a vacation in Montréal, and I couldn’t help but notice that a lot of the signage in Canada looks a lot like the corresponding USA signage — e.g., Québecois stop signs are still red octagons with white text that reads ARRÊT (STOP). Overhead signs on autoroutes are the same large green behemoths we’re used to.

    I’ve never been to Mexico, so I don’t know if the situation there is the same.

    Is there any formal agreement in place between Canada, Mexico, and the United States? Or is it just, “Hey, great idea US, we’re doing that too!”?

  2. Bill Ruhsam says:

    Jim, you’re doing a good job asking me questions I don’t know the answer to. There’s a good reason why this podcast and website are U.S.-centric. My competencies lie here. I will have to put this on the list of things to research.

  3. Annie says:

    I have to thank one of those “keep to the right” signs for saving my life (or at least my wallet and/or dignity). One day in a sleep-deprived haze I was driving the hubbie’s car and getting on at a less familiar (for me) entrance ramp to the Mass Pike. Given how the traffic was moving coming out of the toll plaza, I mistook where I was and almost went to the left of the median and up the exit ramp. What stopped me was some part of my brain registering the sign about 10 feet before I ran out of space to easily correct my error. My correction still required a full stop into the front edge of the snow-bank.

  4. Bill Ruhsam says:


    I absolutely agree that most signs in the MUTCD have a use. But they get overused with great frequency. It becomes easier for the local jurisdiction to put up a sign than to argue with a citizen who *knows* that a sign will fix the problem.

  5. Annie says:

    I took you up on your challenge – somewhat. This morning, I counted 20 signs (including street signs) in just the 2.5 blocks before my parking lot. I only counted signs that were readable from my direction of travel.

  6. Bill Ruhsam says:

    So, about 8 signs per block. That’s not that bad. Urban areas tend to be very congested with signs. To the point of unreadability.

  7. Annie says:

    I think the saving grace is that the approach I take into school is residential.

  8. Chris says:

    Annie beat me to it, but I had a similar experience with the stay right sign.

    Is there something to be said in defense of signs which may be intended to Command Attention from visitors/non-locals than the people who are more familiar with the road way. I don’t need the sign on the hump to tell me to keep right, if I’m familiar with the traffic pattern (e.g. divided road). Of course, I still laugh at the usefulness of the “new traffic pattern” or “new control device” signs. If we were really paying attention to the signage, we wouldn’t need a sign to tell us they have changed!

  9. James Cronen says:

    I’m going to try this… when counting signs, do I count “No Parking” signs or signs dedicated to the state DOT?

  10. Bill Ruhsam says:

    Chris: You’re right, that most signs are intended for drivers not familiar with the area. But there are still plenty that serve little purpose to anyone.

    With respect to the “new traffic patter” or similar sign, those are usually used when placing a new type of restriction at an intersection, such as going from a two-way stop to an all-way stop, or moving from an all-way stop to a signal. The most critical time to inform the public of a new traffic pattern is when you have an in-place flasher with red in one direction but yellow in the other. If you move to an all-way stop, or a signal, it can be difficult to retrain the drivers on the yellow approach. Normal procedure for a lot of traffic engineers is to put up variable message boards for 30-60 days prior to the change, plus leaving them there for another 30-60 days afterwards. That’s a dangerous situation.

    My personal favorite “new” sign was a traffic signal in west Texas. There was a Signal Ahead sign on the approach with a plaque beneath it saying “new signal.” Unfortunately, the dirt and grime on this sign indicated it was anything but new.

  11. Bill Ruhsam says:

    Jim: I think No Parking signs may be safely exempted. But notice how they distract from others.

  12. Pingback: Episode 18 - Red on Top : Talking Traffic

  13. Kester Hinds says:

    Are there any particular sign in the MUTCD to deal with “Dangerous Bend”?

  14. Bill Ruhsam says:

    Kester: If by “Dangerous Bends” you mean any particular curve that is dangerous, well, that depends on why it’s dangerous.

    If it’s simply the case that the curve is too sharp for the speed, then the normal sign is a curve sign such as this one with possibly the addition of a speed plaque beneath it to designate what the safe approach speed is. If you feel like checking the MUTCD, try here.

    If it’s dangerous because there’s a blind driveway or intersection, there are signs for that, too.

    One of the nice things about the MUTCD is that you’re specifically allowed to create custom warning signs with messages tailored to the situation. So if the department who had jurisdiction over your curve wants to place a diamond shaped, black-on-yellow warning sign that says “DANGEROUS CURVE AHEAD”, they’d be within their rights to do so.

    I wouldn’t recommend that practice, though. It’s unlikely that a sign that said that would do any good.

  15. Kester Hinds says:

    Bill: Thank you very much for that information, i would have to proceed by using the “DANGEROUS CURVE AHEAD” on the diamond shaped, black-on-yellow warning sign, and it would have to be done in English and Portuguese, since the road will be used by people who speak these languages individually.

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