A traffic manual ‘to fall asleep by’ stirs road rage

The 862-page 'Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices' is getting an update, and there are differences over vehicles vs. pedestrians

Rainbow colors are inappropriate for crosswalks, says the Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Rainbow colors are inappropriate for crosswalks, says the Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted April 5, 2021 at 7:00am

An 862-page manual governing traffic signs and signals that one analyst calls “a good book to fall asleep by” has ignited a pitched battle over how the federal government approaches transportation policy.

On one end are backers of the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, who include some of the roughly 350 volunteers who spend hundreds of hours offering feedback to the Federal Highway Administration, which issues the book.

On the other are pedestrian advocates, bicycle coalitions and advocates for multimodal transportation. They say the manual, first published in 1935, is a relic of an era when the automobile was king.

Both sides say the premise of the manual is solid. It’s why stop signs look alike and a driver from Texas can travel to Chicago and recognize the same signs and signals in both places.

But the manual that was described as sleep-inducing by a person close to its production is now undergoing its first update since 2009, and much has changed since then. Micromobility in the form of scooters and rental bikes has skyrocketed; motor vehicles are increasingly autonomous.

[Making equity matter in transportation]

Pedestrian advocates increasingly see the manual as a means to better protect them, arguing that for too long it has emphasized vehicle speed at the expense of safety.

Among their key concerns is the 85th percentile speed rule, which recommends that agencies set speed limits within 5 miles per hour of the 85th percentile speed of free-flowing traffic.

“We set speed limits based on how fast cars are driving, not based on context or the safety impact of the speed limit,” said Mike McGinn, a former Seattle mayor who now is executive director of the pedestrian advocacy organization America Walks. “It’s like saying we’re going to set kids’ bedtimes based on the 85th percentile of when they want to go to bed.”

Some say it’s time to start over from scratch.

“That manual has to get thrown out,” said Rep. Jesús “Chuy” García, D-Ill., who argues that the federal government should write a manual “with an eye toward the future.”

All about safety

The document’s defenders say the update is based on the latest research findings from traffic safety groups.

“Safety for all road users is at the heart of what we do,” said John Fisher, chairman of the signals technical committee for the National Committee on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, a nongovernmental group of volunteer stakeholders who make recommendations on manual updates.

The debate over the new edition reflects a larger dialogue over transportation policy. Groups such as Transportation for America are increasingly emphasizing that the effectiveness of transportation should be assessed not only for how fast people and goods move but also for how well our systems connect Americans with jobs and education.

Their complaints seem to be resonating with Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who referenced “the notorious MUTCD” during a March 8 appearance with the National League of Cities.

“How that manual is written and what it calls for could actually have a lot of consequences in terms of how people get around, in terms of safety, even in terms of equity,” he said.

The Trump administration began the most recent update, finishing work just before President Donald Trump left office, and the Biden administration extended the comment deadline to May 14.

Its authority comes with teeth. The Federal Highway Administration can theoretically withhold federal dollars to communities that don’t abide by the manual. An FHWA spokeswoman said they rarely do so, opting instead to work with communities to help them abide by the manual’s mandates. Cities, meanwhile, often cite the manual as evidence that their streets were designed according to federal specifications when facing litigation over traffic issues.

Those who have provided input on the new draft defend it. Fisher, of the National Committee on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, argued in a March 19 email to the signals committee that calls to rewrite the manual amounted to an “existential threat” to a long-standing process.

‘Political maneuvering’

Complaining about “political maneuvering underway behind the scenes,” Fisher defended the process as “broad, deliberate and respectful” and called efforts to rewrite the manual part of a “cancel-culture attempt” to rescind the existing process.

In an email response to a reporter’s query, Fisher said the national committee has some 350 pro bono technical experts who have spent cumulatively 150,000 hours working on recommendations. “It is out of respect for this process, their time and dedication that I registered concern that there were political efforts behind the scenes to summarily discard the draft 11th edition based on vague ideological concerns,” he wrote.

McGinn, of America Walks, which is one of the groups advocating a comprehensive rewrite, dismissed those concerns, saying the manual should be treated as a safety document rather than an ideological document.

“I thought the victims were the people getting killed on the streets,” he said, referring to Fisher’s allusion to cancel culture.

McGinn and others say that in attempting to create a uniform system for signage, the manual has over time imposed a “one size fits all” approach prioritizing vehicles over pedestrians and limited cities’ ability to use creative approaches to ensure safety.

“How did what appears to be a relatively obscure federal document become kind of an issue politically?” McGinn said. “It’s because so many advocates and transportation professionals have been stymied by it in an attempt to create safe streets.”

Uniformity

Bradley M. Sant, senior vice president of safety and education at the American Road and Transportation Builders Association, said the manual has traditionally sought to balance safety with uniformity. “And right now, uniformity has a much bigger weight on the scale than safety and innovation,” he said.

“There is value in having some uniformity,” said Alex Engel, a spokesman for the National Association of City Transportation Officials, which has argued for an overhaul of the manual. “I think where we’ve broken down here is applying a one-size-fits-all model to every street in the U.S. Urban streets are by nature context-sensitive.”

America Walks and NACTO have urged members to write the Federal Highway Administration asking it to “reframe and rewrite” the manual to focus more on safety and equity, citing data that shows higher deaths in Black and brown neighborhoods.

Other critics argue that the manual is too prescriptive. In 2019, after the city of Ames, Iowa, painted crosswalks in rainbow colors to show solidarity with its LGBTQ community, the Federal Highway Administration sent a written request that the crosswalks be removed. The City Council voted unanimously to ignore the letter.

But criticism of the manual is not limited strictly to pedestrian issues.

Evolutionary Markings, a company based in Boise, Idaho, invented and patented a system designed to alert drivers when they were going the wrong way on a highway ramp.

Then, according to company CEO Tom Linville, it learned realized that the U.S. Department of Transportation had a rule, imposed in 1916, barring federal dollars from being spent on intellectual property protected by a patent except through competitive bidding with equally suitable unpatented items.

With the help of the American Road and Transportation Builders Association, the company fought that rule. The Trump administration overturned it in 2019.

Despite the DOT’s repeal of the rule, the manual still bars such products from being used.

Linville said if he keeps his patent rights, he can’t sell his product. If he waives his patent rights, it’s possible someone else will swoop in and make the product cheaper than his small company can.

Linville had high hopes that the first draft of the revisions would reflect DOT policy and eliminate that rule. Instead, it was expanded.

“They’re codifying it,” he said. “They’re making new law by regulation.”