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Washington bureaucrats want to kill highway sign joy

Sunday, February 4, 2024

We can have fun with signs and inform people too.

Last month, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Highway Administration released a publication that’s bound to be a bestseller: the 11th edition of the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices for Streets and Highways — the MUTCD. It’s 1,161 pages of minute detail about street markings and directional arrows. For instance: “The width across the arrowhead for the Types A, B, and C directional arrows should be between 1.5 and 1.75 times the height of the upper-case letters of the principal legend on the sign.”

A real page-turner. December’s release addresses an issue never tackled by the manual before. Squeezed in among the roundabout plot twists and traffic light cliffhangers is a recommendation that state highway agencies cut it out with the humor already.

Readers may be familiar with the one-liners that sometimes appear on those changeable message boards along Texas highways. During times of emergency such as severe weather or an Amber Alert, the signs provide crucial information. At other times, they provide timely — and sometimes funny — reminders about safe driving, like “Only Rudolph should drive lit” during the holiday season or “Horns up. Phones down. It can wait.” during Red River Rivalry weekend.

That kind of frivolity is inappropriate for such an austere setting as an asphalt strip, the feds say.

“Messages with obscure or secondary meanings, such as those with popular culture references, unconventional sign legend syntax, or that are intended to be humorous, should not be used as they might be misunderstood or understood only by a limited segment of road users and require greater time to process and understand,” the manual reads. Signs should be “simple, direct, brief, legible and clear.”

This is classic bureaucratic nonsense. Unless we’re going to outlaw billboards and building signs, drivers are going to pass lots of signage designed to get their attention. And the most dangerous distraction for drivers these days is not a road sign at all, but the phones we can’t seem to put down.

Somewhere in a soulless cubicle farm in Washington D.C., there’s someone who is very serious — 1,161 pages serious — about highway signage. Uniformity, readability and clarity are important to the job, and that person is doing it well. We’re glad a nameless hero is out there, protecting us all against the creeping nihilism of oversized directional arrows.

We just think maybe it’s time to get out more.

San Marcos Record

(512) 392-2458
P.O. Box 1109, San Marcos, TX 78666