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Federal Highway Administration > Publications > Public Roads > Vol. 65 · No. 1 > The Millennium Manual Matters

July/Aug 2001
Vol. 65 · No. 1

The Millennium Manual Matters

by David Smith

One of the missions of the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) is to increase the uniformity, safety, and efficiency of traffic operations on our nation's highways and streets.

Can you imagine what the American driving experience would be like without uniform traffic control devices? A red light in Peoria might mean go, while a red octagonal sign in Dallas might mean yield. A solid blue line in the center of the road in West Virginia may allow drivers to pass other vehicles. Picture a car pool lane in your state signified by a triangular sign with horizontal stripes. A leisurely weekend trip across county or state lines would become a nightmare of confusion and anxiety. Traffic accidents resulting from driver error would skyrocket. Thousands more Americans would be injured in crashes, and the drain on insurance companies would be incredible.

By adopting standards for traffic control devices, FHWA ensures that all signs, signals, pavement markings, and other traffic control devices follow the same basic rules no matter where you travel in the United States.

Not only do highway engineers use the Manual for Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) in their daily operations, so do many businesses, industries, and others that focus on the needs of the highway community. For example, land developers who fail to follow the standards could be held liable if crashes occur that could have been prevented by the correct traffic control devices. Attorneys involved in traffic disputes often rely on the manual to give them guidance. Manufacturers of traffic control devices need the manual to design and refine their products, ensuring that these devices comply with the federal guidelines and requirements.

In a landmark event, FHWA released the 2000 Millennium Edition of MUTCD, a significantly updated version of the classic manual. Results of recent highway research and cutting-edge technological advancements are covered in this new edition.

Although FHWA is responsible for approving and publishing MUTCD, the National Committee on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (NCUTCD) voluntarily took on the arduous task of developing the MUTCD text.

"Over the last 10 years, our members have devoted more than 2,000 man-hours to determining the necessary changes," said Ken Kobetsky, chair of NCUTCD. "The Millennium Edition represents a lot of hard work by a lot of dedicated people."

MUTCD is the only official source of standard information on the critical subject of traffic control device design and application that is applicable to the entire national highway-user community, including pedestrians, bicyclists, and drivers of automobiles, motorcycles, trucks, and buses.

In fact, one of the most important new revisions in the manual is the redefinition of the road user. Previous editions of MUTCD dealt exclusively with motorized vehicles. This approach is not adequate today because it does not fully address the reality of modern road use. The management of control devices on America's roadways requires recognition that the safety of pedestrians and bicyclists must also be considered in the design and implementation of signs, markings, and signals.

MUTCD - A Short History

Since 1927, MUTCD has been a fundamental part of roadway traffic guidance. Even in the early stages of widespread automobile use, the American Association of State Highway Officials (AASHO), an organization of all the state departments of transportation, saw the necessity for organized standards of rural traffic markers. A few years later, the National Conference on Street and Highway Safety (NCSHS) took the initiative to publish its own manual of specifications for urban streets.

The idea was simple - publish a listing of traffic devices that would give road engineers an established set of standards. These guidelines would be both broad in scope and specific in direction, allowing for a federally mandated standard of guiding traffic through the countryside and the urban and suburban areas of the United States.

America was quickly being paved over with new roads. Without these standards, driver safety and confidence were significantly compromised, as traffic signposts often changed when an early motorist crossed a border into another state or sometimes even into another county or town.

As our nation's roads changed, as our vehicles became faster, as our cities gradually changed shape, MUTCD has changed with them. AASHO and NCSHS have become AASHTO (American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials) and NCUTCD, but their missions are still the same. They still play an active role in developing changes to MUTCD.

The Importance of Standards

Standards are a fundamental ingredient of any meaningful public operation, including transportation. If traffic signals and markings change between jurisdictions, even a small difference can mean countless problems for roadway users. Because most Americans frequently travel in multiple states and in many local jurisdictions, universal standards of traffic control markings are essential to maintain roadway safety. This is possible only if every participant in the important business of highway control markings is working from the same rule book.

"Probably the best thing about the Millennium Edition is the clearer language of the definitions," said Bill Bremer of the Wisconsin Division of FHWA. "It makes the new requirements and guidelines even easier to follow."

Lee Billingsley, director of the Office of Transportation for Broward County, Fla., agreed. "In doing this reformatting, we needed to rethink all of the text. It was a kind of intellectual exercise, where we could reconfirm the best thinking from the previous editions, and make it easier for users to quickly determine what rules they need to follow," said Billingsley.

The manual's new user-friendly wording is extremely helpful in day-to-day traffic control operations. The text is written with category headings that clearly define the appropriate intent of the MUTCD provision. For example:

  • Standard statements are mandatory practices. The verb "shall" is typically used.
  • Guidance statements are recommended practices, and the verb "should" is typically used.
  • Option statements are permissive and carry no requirement or recommendation. The verb "may" is typically used.
  • Support statements contain general and descriptive information.

The Millennium Edition became effective on Jan. 17, 2001, and the states are directed to adopt these changes by Jan. 17, 2003. Some of the changes in the new manual have compliance dates that give states more than two years to comply. FHWA is well aware of the potential economic difficulties in the immediate adoption of some new traffic control standards, and longer transition periods help minimize problems.

However, it is important to standardize the transition to the new requirements. As Karen Brunelle of FHWA's Tennessee Division said, "Because every state must adopt the manual within two years, the consistent application of traffic control systems throughout the country is assured."

Some states, including California and Minnesota, have developed and adopted their own version of the Millennium Edition of MUTCD to cover special situations that are unique to their locations. In accordance with Title 23, Code of Federal Regulations, Part 655.605, "States or other Federal agency MUTCDs shall be in substantial conformance with the national MUTCD."

Signs of Change

Traffic signs remain the chief means of controlling traffic movement. These ubiquitous and inexpensive devices can communicate complicated instructions to a driver with simple, recognizable symbols. The key is consistency in order to provide universal recognition of their clear meaning. Standard signs have been in operation for decades and have little need for update. For example, throughout the country, a stop sign is red in color and octagonal. Any change to a classic traffic control device like this would be very dangerous as well as confusing.

However, the dynamic nature of changing traffic trends and roadway expansion demands the occasional revision of the old signs and the addition of new ones. For instance, an entirely new class of signs has emerged called reversible lane control signs. Also, many signs related to high-occupancy-vehicle lanes have been added.

"The new sections in the manual on low-volume roads and the inclusion of the reversible lane markings are very important," said Brunelle. There are many more examples for which the Millennium Edition is the only authorized source on new traffic control devices.

For example, the Millennium Edition contains a new section on Light Rail (Part 10). FHWA research has shown that light-rail systems, including metropolitan transit systems such as trolleys and people movers, interact differently with road traffic than their heavier railroad counterparts.The essential principles of Part 10 are the same as in Part 8, which discusses the traditional highway-rail crossing. However, Part 10 specifically takes into account the reality of light-rail vehicles, which often operate in mixed traffic with automobiles and pedestrians.

Not only are light-rail systems becoming more common, but so are construction zones. The title to Part 6 has changed to "Temporary Traffic Control," which replaces "Standards and Guides for Street and Highway Construction, Maintenance, Utility, and Incident Management Operations." This new definition refers to areas of a highway in which traffic conditions are changed because of a work zone or other incident involving the use of temporary traffic control devices. Potential "other incidents" include accidents, natural disasters, or special events; all of which are specific instances in which temporary changes are made to the standard control procedures for that specific road.

The standardization of traffic control devices within work zones and areas of temporary change is important because it facilitates better traffic management and alleviates driver and road-user frustration.

Worker safety is another important component of these new rules. As a result, the Millennium Edition includes important information on shadow vehicles (a new term that replaces "protection vehicle," a vehicle that shields workers from being hit by errant automobiles), crash cushions, and other devices to protect workers.

The Millennium Edition of MUTCD and You

"The Millennium Manual is very, very useful," said Cathy Satterfield from FHWA's Midwestern Resource Center. "The last edition was out of date and needed an update because so much important new research simply wasn't in the old MUTCD."

Satterfield is referring to research that has been conducted by experts all across the country and is reflected in thousands of studies and reports that FHWA has produced, funded, collected, or compiled. The significant, new findings have vastly improved the ways in which traffic is guided on our nation's highways, and they demanded massive revisions and, in some cases, entirely new chapters in the updated manual. The new additions include sizable, new sections on rural roads and light rail.

FHWA is staying ahead of the curve in information-age technology by publishing the Millennium Edition of MUTCD exclusively in an electronic format. It is available on the official MUTCD Web site (http://mutcd.fhwa.dot.gov) where it can be easily updated as often as necessary without concern about printing costs.

"FHWA wants the MUTCD to be a living document, a place where users can find the most up-to-date information," said Linda Brown in FHWA's Office of Traffic Operations. Online publication also eliminates the need and the expense of distributing updated reprints every few years. "Instead of investing a lot of resources in printing and distributing the MUTCD, FHWA is devoting more resources to outreach and public awareness of the MUTCD principles. It is much simpler for the manual users to print out the newest version at their leisure, rather than wait for the fresh copy to arrive in their mailboxes."

For users who prefer a printed edition, FHWA's printing partners, including the American Traffic Safety Services Association (ATSSA), Institute of Transportation Engineers, AASHTO, and the U.S. Government Printing Office, will provide hard copies of MUTCD for a fee. ATSSA also has a CD-ROM available.

There are many good reasons to adhere to the specifications of the Millennium Edition, and chief among these is that the manual carries the force of law. In one specific example, a Tennessee contractor was held liable for flagging procedures that violated standards set in MUTCD. Also, Title 23, CFR, Part 655, Subpart F requires that traffic control devices in all local jurisdictions follow the standards specified in MUTCD. This provision implies that the newest edition of MUTCD is the definitive source of traffic control device requirements. Therefore, everyone involved in the application of traffic control systems should use the most recent edition of the manual. Failure to do so can be very costly in terms of safety and expense.

The Millennium Edition is a tool that is as real and palpable as a shovel, bulldozer, or hammer. It allows those involved in the design and administration of roads to align their efforts in establishing reliable, up-to-date traffic controls with the rest of the nation. The ultimate source for the newest methodology in nationwide traffic guidance is all in one place. Now it is the goal of FHWA to get the Millennium Edition of MUTCD into widespread, exclusive use by highway engineers, insurance companies, departments of motor vehicles, law enforcement, engineering consultants, and countless other groups and individuals that have a use for the information contained within it. We cannot afford to leave anyone behind in these efforts. The safety of all Americans relies on it.


David Smith is a frequent writer on transportation policy, issues, and technologies. A graduate of Cambridge University, he is the principal of AMANUENSIS Creative Group, a professional writing and consulting group located in Vienna, Va.

For the most current information, constantly updated electronically, visit the official MUTCD Web site at http://mutcd.fhwa.dot.gov. This Web site also has information on the amendment process, tutorials and other educational materials, the latest news on revisions, answers to frequently asked questions, discussion groups, links, and much more.

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