We hope you've budgeted a significant increase for your department's sign shop, because the newest version of the Federal Highway Administration's (FHWA) Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) is likely to take effect by the end of this year. Last revised in 2003, the “bible” of city, county, and state road managers dictates the pavement, sidewalk, roadside, and traffic signs that must be used in various situations.

One motivation for the update was a March 2007 bus crash in Atlanta that killed seven passengers and injured 29 others. High-occupancy vehicle lanes, used in some states since as early as the 1970s, have been implicated.

“There's some question as to whether the driver should have been in that lane and, based on the signage, whether it was taking him where he wanted to go,” says FHWA spokesperson Doug Hecox. The new manual requires high-occupancy vehicle lanes to be marked by diamonds on the pavement, and signs must have green backgrounds and white legends.

Because of the number and complexity of the revisions—the version that shows both the current manual and proposed changes runs to 600 pages—the FHWAis taking comments until July 31, an unusually long comment period.

Among other changes, the new manual:

Clarifies “open to public travel,” which applies to commercial and recreational facilities that are privately owned but where the public is allowed to travel freely, such as roads within shopping centers, parking lots, sports arenas, and airports.

Addresses situations unique to toll-ways. With more states building toll plazas through public-private partnerships, standards have been added for sign messages on approaching lanes to both conventional toll plazas and open-road tolling facilities, which collect tolls electronically. Lane status signals mounted on toll plaza canopies should indicate whether a lane is open or closed. New symbols have been added for payment options, such as cash and exact change.

Standardizes requirements for street signs to eliminate what the FHWA calls the “considerable variety among the states in the specific words or phrases used to communicate the same basic information to road users.”

Common discrepancies include situations in which passing on the right is prohibited, and where vehicles are required to yield to pedestrians when turning. Also being standardized are advance warnings of a yield condition where a merge area is not available, advance warnings for shared bicycle and pedestrian paths that cross roadways, and notification that an exit will be from the left side of a highway instead of from the right side.

— Stephen Barlas is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer who's covered federal government issues since 1981.

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