Happy 80th Birthday to the MUTCD – You the Man(ual)!
Tomorrow, November 7, marks the 80th birthday of the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices for Streets and Highways. USDOT is celebrating and we love a good party so this week we have a guest op-ed from Dr. Gene Hawkins. Buckle up for safety and prepare to learn more about traffic control devices (TCDs) than you ever thought you would!
Why is the MUTCD Important to Policy Makers?
MUTCD. Five letters that cannot be pronounced, but that represent what is arguably the most important document in transportation engineering. It is not a word, instead it is pronounced as five separate letters: M-U-T-C-D. The acronym identifies the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices for Streets and Highways. On November 7, 2015, the MUTCD celebrates its 80th birthday. Over those 80 years, the MUTCD has grown from a 166-page document whose initial goal was to bring uniformity to the chaotic system of traffic control devices that existed in the 1920s and early 1930s to today’s 857 pages addressing the meaning, design, selection, installation, operation, and maintenance of traffic control devices. The MUTCD is administered by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and is available as a free download on the MUTCD website (https://mutcd.fhwa.dot.gov).
Why is the MUTCD so important? Within its pages are various criteria for traffic control devices that promote the safe and efficient movement of motor vehicles, bicycles, and pedestrians on our streets and highways. Because of the MUTCD, all Stop signs are eight-sided signs with a white copy and border on a red background, and other traffic control devices have similar levels of uniform appearance. It is the MUTCD that allows a tourist or truck driver traveling from Maine to California to see familiar traffic control devices in each state and respond in a predictable fashion. By promoting the safety of road users and providing for efficient traffic movement, the MUTCD contributes to economic vitality of our country. Without a national system of uniform traffic control devices, the difficulty of national travel would be exponentially increased.
The importance of the MUTCD is further emphasized by the fact that it is the only transportation engineering document that is defined in the Code of Federal Regulations as a national standard. It applies to all roads open to public travel, including those on private property. All traffic signs, markings, signals, railroad crossings, and work zone devices on public and private roads are required to comply with the thousands of criteria contained within the MUTCD. This means that responsible officials in every state, county, city, township, village, and private property parcel open to public travel must know, understand, and apply these criteria on a daily basis in order to comply with the MUTCD. While there is no “MUTCD Police” to monitor compliance, when there is an injury or fatality on a road, a lack of MUTCD compliance is often cited in the resulting tort claims lawsuit. There is no other transportation engineering document that establishes a similar level of performance requirements from both a legal and a practice perspective, which further emphasizes the value of the MUTCD to our country and the importance of following the criteria within the document.
Using the MUTCD can be a challenge, but it is a challenge that most public agencies are well-prepared to meet. Agencies employ traffic engineers, contact Local Transportation Assistance Programs (LTAP), and hire traffic engineering consultants to provide the expertise needed to effectively use MUTCD criteria. The need for such expertise is important because the MUTCD is not written for a lay person and using the MUTCD can be a complex process. There are several factors that make using the MUTCD challenging. The first is that while the MUTCD is defined as a national standard, not all of the criteria in the MUTCD establish mandatory conditions. The actual content in the MUTCD contains three different levels of mandates: standards (requirements), guidance (recommendations), and options (voluntary). There is also information that carries no mandate, but simply provides support or background information. The need for appropriate expertise is further emphasized by a recent FHWA interpretation that allows deviations from the standards (requirements) in limited cases. A second factor is that each location where a traffic control device is installed is unique and must be considered on an individual basis. A third factor is that traffic control devices can work in concert with one another, work against one another, or work independently, depending upon the device, location, and site-specific conditions. The quantity of information, multiple levels of mandates, wide variety of field conditions, and potential interactions between numerous devices and other factors require engineering and technical skills to properly assess, design, and implement the appropriate traffic control devices at a specific location. Using the MUTCD in an effective manner requires knowledge of the document’s content, expertise in the traffic engineering field, knowledge of key human factors principles, understanding of basic legal principles, and a great deal of common sense.
The path of the MUTCD to national prominence took many years. The first MUTCD was published in 1935 and the current edition (published in 2009) represents the 10th edition of the document. During those 80 years, each edition of the MUTCD added more content and assumed greater significance. The early editions of the MUTCD were prepared by a joint committee of representatives from several transportation organizations. A successor of that committee still contributes to improving the MUTCD as the National Committee on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (NCUTCD). In the early 1960s, the federal government began requiring compliance with the MUTCD on federal-aid projects and in the early 1970s, the FHWA assumed ownership of the MUTCD. Today, as mentioned above, the MUTCD is a federal regulation. This means that changes to the MUTCD can be made only through the rulemaking process, limiting the ability to introduce new content in an expedited manner, something that serves both as an advantage and a disadvantage.
Changing the MUTCD is a relatively slow and deliberative process, with the preparation and rulemaking efforts for a new edition typically taking around three years. As an example, the time between the notice of proposed amendments and the final rule for the 2009 MUTCD was a few weeks short of two years and that does not include the time required to prepare the initial proposed rule. One of the reasons for the extended revision process is that proposed MUTCD content generates many comments from the profession. During the six month docket period for the 2009 MUTCD, over 15,000 individual comments were submitted regarding the proposed material. The final rule for the 2009 MUTCD contained over 600 significant changes to the previous MUTCD. While some may criticize the glacial pace of MUTCD change, the extended process of revising the MUTCD is actually an advantage. It provides time to experiment with new concepts and gain the experience needed to develop appropriately vetted MUTCD content for practitioners to follow. Many traffic control devices have service lives that range from 10 years for a sign to 30 years for a signal. Given the length of time between MUTCD editions, agencies want a high level of confidence in the validity of traffic control device practices before they are added to the MUTCD in order to optimize the use of tax dollars for installing, operating, and maintaining traffic control devices.
While the time between MUTCD editions has averaged about eight years over its 80 year life, the time between editions has varied between 3 and 13 years. The next edition of the MUTCD was originally intended to be published in 2016, but that rulemaking has been postponed due to other rulemakings having a higher priority. Based on the estimated time it takes to prepare a new edition of the MUTCD, it appears that the next MUTCD will not be published before 2018 unless a proposed rule is published by summer 2016. Delays in the proposed rule could push publication of the next edition beyond 2018.
The delay in rulemaking for the next MUTCD has worked for the best however, as it provides an opportunity for a strategic evaluation of the MUTCD and what it should be in 20 years. The NCUTCD recently prepared a 20-year long-range vision and strategic plan for the MUTCD, and the FHWA will soon publish a request for comments on the future of the MUTCD. These efforts will help the profession in determining how traffic control devices will function in an environment that includes automated/autonomous vehicles, significant increases in older drivers, an increasingly diverse driving population, increases in pedestrian and bicycle travel, and reductions in the funds available for traffic control device infrastructure.
As in many other areas, the years ahead present many challenges in the traffic control device field, but there are also many opportunities.