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What is the MUTCD?

Highway signs
This highway sign from 1920 predates the MUTCD by half a decade.

Unclear signage can cause drivers to slow down, lose concentration, or send them in the wrong direction – even causing fatal accidents. Manufacturers have to focus relentlessly on standardization and immediate visibility; it can be a matter of not just convenience, but life and death.

As a result, across the U.S., government-posted road signage might have some minor variations, but it's no accident that everyone knows what to do at a stop sign, a one-way sign, and the characteristic RR sign that appears on railroad tracks. The near-universal recognizability of the signs we encounter on a daily basis isn't an accident – it's part of a comprehensive plan put in place by the Federal Highway Administration (or FHWA), and refined over many decades with input from experts and municipalities alike. That plan is called the Manual on Universal Traffic Control Devices, more commonly known as the MUTCD.

Let's go back in time a little bit. Once the first cars began to supplant the horse-and-carriage in the first decade of the 20th century, drivers found themselves in a situation we can hardly imagine today: few signs (and even fewer publicly maintained), no highways, no directions, and no traffic control. Local automobile clubs – typically made up of affluent city-dwellers – formed societies that put signs up on roads in an effort to help themselves and others navigate; the then-booming city of Buffalo was first, in 1905, followed by San Francisco.

As wayfinding tools like directional signs became more common over the next two decades, public officials began to recognize the need for public regulation of the private good of the roadways. Indiana, Wisconsin and Minnesota were the first to establish standards for signage, setting down many of the conventions still in place – white type on a red sign used to mean "stop," although in the '20s, stop signs were originally much rarer due to the amount of metal wasted in their construction.

The American Association of State Highway Officials moved to standardize signs on rural roads in 1927, while establishing a separate set of regulations for urban roads. It was confusing to have to negotiate two different sets of sign conventions once drivers crossed an arbitrary line between rural and urban areas, so the two efforts were consolidated into the MUTCD in 1935. The MUTCD sets down rules for how far apart signs should be placed and where, what various signs should look like from sign color to the stroke (or thickness) of the letters; later, it added rules for placement and operation of devices like traffic lights and railroad crossing gates.

Since then, the MUTCD has been updated every three to thirteen years, depending on need. All states are required to integrate the MUTCD into their own roadways within two years, though many states supplement the MUTCD with their own peculiar sets of regulations. As of mid-2012, only Tennessee and Hawaii's adoption of the most recent MUTCD are pending.

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