A Largely Unknown Manual That Touches All of Our Daily Lives

Walk sign and illuminated sign below reading DANCE
Dance Walk in Downtown Greeley

As that age-old saying we all are so familiar with goes, "There is life before you know about the Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices, and there is life after."

Well, welcome to the next chapter of your life! (And if you already speak MUTCD, a round of high-5's!)

The melodiously named 1,161-page MUTCD is the bible for our roads. It establishes how the speed limit outside your home is set, if the busy intersection downtown should get a stop light, stop sign, or nothing; how wide lanes need to be - which influences if there can be a shoulder, bike lane, or sidewalk; what exit signs and yield signs should look like; when to use a double yellow line on the road, and heaps more.

As a Harvard Law Review piece put it, we entrust our lives to this manual - one that's pretttttty obscure to anyone who doesn't move in engineering, urban planning, or safe streets circles.

Speed limit setting 101! Speed limits were historically set using the 85th percentile, which in its simplest terms sets the speed at what 85% of drivers voluntarily drive on a given road. Some say this crowdsourcing approach is a bit like setting the tax rate at what 85% of taxpayers will voluntarily pay. How we got the 85th percentile is a bit murky, but it dates back to the 20th century when cars (and roads) were smaller, less speedy, and there were fewer driver distractions. But change is afoot! Read on...

And who has the pen on this mighty manual? The Federal Highway Authority, part of the Department of Transportation (DOT).

To prove the stereotype that the Feds are unsmiling Scrooges, the most recent MUTCD, which was unveiled in December 2023, discourages humor in signage – think electric signboards reading, "Hey Bobblehead, stop looking at your phone."

Arizona, which does electric signboard safety message contests (last year's winner: "Seatbelts always pass the vibe check") stated they were "disappointed" in the MUTCD's creative suppression. This, combined with other states' outcries, led to a DOT clarification that it doesn't ban humor, per se, but discourages messages that confuse drivers.

Keep thy electric signboard shining bright, Arizona.

Notably, this signage kerfuffle is the most significant mainstream press the new MUTCD has gotten. Which is striking considering that U.S. pedestrian fatalities are the highest they've been since Reagan was president: 40,000 people in 2023. (See how your state stacks up here.). We're putting up awful stats that our peer countries don't come close to.

And who's being killed at the highest rate? As is far too often the case, the burden is being borne disproportionately by Black folks, as well as Native Americans. There's also a rise in folks who are homeless being killed on the road at night.

Last year, when I began my quest to lower the speed limit on the Formula 1 track masquerading as a road outside my house, I came crashing into the MUTCD. No dice, the city powers that be said, your road won't meet the MUTCD criteria for a lower speed. Same for folks looking for a stop sign in Peoria, a bike lane in Jacksonville, a walk sign in Burlington: the MUTCD is nearly always the all-mighty decider.

It is so often used to shut down neighborhood efforts for safer streets, that one traffic engineer dubbed it the "technical brushoff."

It's worth noting that the MUTCD gives traffic engineers permission to wait until a certain number of pedestrians are struck or killed before putting in a traffic signal (see p. 661; in far too many instances, 3-5 pedestrians need to be hit or killed in a one year period to merit a traffic signal).

Let's take a beat here. After digesting something as disturbing as that, it feels like a fitting time to digest something gentler. Here's a favorite blueberry muffin recipe that goes down easy; I've been using applesauce instead of oil and really enjoying it.

Smart folks suggest - and this humble pedestrian would agree - that the MUTCD has prioritized getting cars as quickly as possible from one place to another above all else. Unsurprisingly, the manual has a pretty slim fan base among those pushing for safer streets.

But there are two pieces of good news to elevate here.

The first comes from Congress, an unusual bearer of good news, I know. When they passed the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Act, tucked deep into that bill (p. 508, if you're following along) is a provision requiring that the MUTCD be updated every four years; the last update was in 2009. Which means we can advocate for changes and not have to wait until we're a decade older for them to be viable.

The second bit of useful good news is that the MUTCD did get a facelift in December 2023, and this latest edition is a promising - if very modest - step forward for our roads most vulnerable users: kiddos, cyclists, pedestrians, folks with disabilities. A few highlights (fuller highlights and lowlights here):

  • In a good example of policy change, the 85th percentile got a demotion as the primary speed-setting tool and now there's a context-sensitive approach that factors in bike and pedestrian needs, what's in the surrounding area (say daycares, synagogues, playgrounds, etc), and crash history.
  • The general tone is more inclusive about the safety of all road users, as opposed to just cars. Before you pour yourself a glass of something good and settle in with the manual, know that this more inclusive spirit does not in any way make this document more readable. It remains drier than the Sahara. From p.661:
    • "For each of any 8 hours of an average day, the vehicles per hour (vph) given in both of the 80 percent columns of Condition A in Table 4C-1 (see Section 4C.02), or the vph in both of the 80 percent columns of Condition B in Table 4C-1 exists on the major street and the more critical minor-street approach, respectively, to the intersection, or the volume of pedestrian traffic is not less than 80 percent of the requirements specified in the Pedestrian Volume warrant (see Section 4C.05)."

Is there more work to be done on the MUTCD? Miles more work. But this is a step in the right direction, which always beats a step in the wrong direction.

States have two years to implement the latest MUTCD. So if we want to see a change in our town - say a stop sign by your house or a crosswalk near the park - let's check to see if it's compliant with the latest MUTCD or if there's a way we can use the MUTCD to make our case. ( I'll certainly be doing that to calm the Indy 500 track outside my house.) That'll be our best shot at getting the town to take action towards safer streets.

Inertia is one of the most powerful forces in policy change; life, too, really. But one useful dimension to policy change being so dang hard is that if we can make it happen - as the latest MUTCD does - it will be so dang hard to unchange.

So keep the faith. And the speed limit.*

*Unless it's too fast, in which case, don't keep it. Change it.

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