Will the USA Get Safer Road Signs? — The FHWA is updating the MUTCD!

The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) has announced this month (October 2018) that it is pursuing an update to the “Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices for Streets and Highways” — the MUTCD — in preparation for the future of automated vehicles and to afford states and local communities with more opportunities to utilize innovation.

Photograph of a "Bump" sign but the p is covered by snow.
Who knew that snow has a sense of humor? (Copyright image, 2013)

Excerpt:  “The new manual will be forward-looking in accommodating technologies necessary to support highway connectivity, automation and innovations that improve safety and efficiency,” Deputy Federal Highway Administrator Brandye L. Hendrickson said. “The revised edition will lay the groundwork for supporting the infrastructure of the future.”

A road sign which, very confusingly, reads "Caution left turn movement ahead."
Even many American drivers would be puzzled by this wording, let alone foreign visitors (on whom America depends for a huge injection of money). What, precisely, DOES it mean — vehicles turning onto the main road, or off it?!   (Copyright image, 2011)

There can be no doubt that this is good news, however there has been no mention of an existing, significant flaw in the current edition of the MUTCD which is the continued inclusion of many text-based signs rather than image-based alternatives (see the above photograph).

Road sign showing a curve to the right when the next curve on the road is actually to the left.
A misleading and dangerous sign which shows a curve to the right when the next one is actually to the left.  Now imagine teenagers in a car on a wet, foggy or icy night! (And the situation is made more dangerous by the presence of a ditch on the outside of the curve.) Engineers will cite “rules” regarding such situations, but as the old saying goes, “rules are made for the guidance of the wise and the blind obedience of fools!”  (Copyright image, 2011.)

The move away from words on signs to pictograms was promoted at least as far back as 1949 when the United Nations attempted to get all nations to adopt the same signs around the world so that foreign visitors or residents who do not speak a country’s mother tongue could still understand the signs and therefore drive more safely.

Then there’s also the question of the adequacy and accuracy of signs.

Photo of an extremely faded "traffic signals ahead" road sign,
Decrepit or inaccurate signs should also be replaced as soon as possible.  If there’s a fatal crash, who thinks to look at the signs to see if they are a factor?  Checking the accuracy and adequacy of signs at crash sites is something that always needs to be done, and guilty states, cities, towns, etc., be held accountable.  (Copyright image, 2011.)

For the sake of improved safety on America’s roads, we can only hope that the FHWA takes this opportunity to recommend to the 50 states that no further avoidable text signs are erected and that existing ones, together with decrepit signs, are replaced by new, image-based signs as a matter of expediency.

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Author: EddieWren

Eddie Wren is the CEO and Chief Instructor at Advanced Drivers of North America. His driver safety background is given at: http://www.advanceddrivers.com/ceochief-instructors-resumecvbio/

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