December 10


Sign Language: When Less is More

By Mike Spack

December 10, 2015

detour, keep right, signs, traffic sign, turn signs

Guest Post by Bryant Ficek, PE, PTOE, Vice President at Spack Consulting

“Sign. Sign. Everywhere a sign. Blocking out the scenery, breaking my mind. Do this don’t do that – can’t you read the sign!”

I’m not sure the Five Man Electric Band had traffic engineering in mind when they made this song (or Tesla with the remake). Yet they bring up a very good point, we have a lot of signs. Forget about billboards and advertising for the moment and just think about the number of roadway signs we use for basic driving, bicycling, or even walking.

Naturally, we have examples for you:

When can you park in Culver City, CA and where you should go.

Parking and Direction Signs









Or here where it’s not clear where to the detour is directing drivers and the sign confusion of whether or not to make a left hand turn.

Directional Sign Confusion









In Milwaukee, Wisconsin a sign is posted to warn drivers and pedestrians. But what are they being warned about?





An of course, there is this sign which wants drivers to not pay attention to it.

6-Not in Use







I’m sure most traffic engineers, heck most people, can think of at least one example of too many signs in one area, a confusing sign, or a just plain useless sign (signal ahead signs when I can see the signal before the sign are ones that particularly bug me).

At Spack Consulting, we believe less is more. If a sign is needed or required by the MUTCD, then it should be provided. But all too often signs are posted because “it matches what was done on the last project” or “the local agency wanted it.” Or have you taken a look at the signs from the drivers’ perspective to reduce confusion. We get that you may be required to put in lots of signs, but let’s try to use our engineering judgment when we are able to.

In addition, we love the innovation some people are applying to make signs less confusing. Mike wrote about new signs covering parking regulations in New York. Those signs are also a step in the right direction of having less, but more meaningful signs. Although be wary

One item to consider when reviewing signs on a corridor or intersection is the MUTCD, which has a great list for when traffic control devices should apply (Section 1A.02). Editorializing slightly to apply to signs – to be effective, a sign should meet five basic requirements:

  1. Fulfill a need
  2. Command attention
  3. Convey a clear, simple meaning
  4. Command respect from road users
  5. Give adequate time for proper response

Do all of your signs meet these criterion?

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Mike Spack

My mission is to help traffic engineers, transportation planners, and other transportation professionals improve our world.

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