TM&E: Swear on the MUTCD

Daniel Baxter / January 26, 2010

You all know the acronym. The MUTCD is the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, right? Not to me. My definition? My Unpleasant Traffic Court Day.

My name was called. I crossed the courtroom and faced the assistant city attorney. “Oh, you got a ticket at the airport,” he said, “Let’s discuss this before it goes to the judge.” He spent a few minutes explaining the signs at the airport, assuming I was confused as to my absolute guilt.

I listened quietly, and then told him, “The speed limit sign on which my ticket was based was not in conformance to the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices.”

He quickly interrupted, “Let me stop you right there—the MUTCD does not apply in this city.” He then pulled out a court record that showed a decision that “strict adherence to the MUTCD is not required.”

I told him that a jury might see it differently, that if I had to follow the traffic rules, the people who install signs have to follow the rules, too. He informed me that he could easily suppress evidence from the MUTCD because it does not apply in his city, and the jury would never hear that argument.

I replied, “If the MUTCD doesn’t apply, why doesn’t the city just put up a $12 plywood board and spray paint 35 on it, instead of spending $1,800 to install a valid sign?”

He stopped for a moment, and I sensed I had made a point.

To his credit he then listened as I handed him references from the MUTCD and showed him the picture you see below. I showed him what I believed was the nonconformity. I also explained that a series of supplemented signs with no regular R2-1s applied in between, is probably OK, but is a questionable practice possibly confusing to some motorists. He didn’t agree directly, but ceased to argue the point.

He told me his brother is an engineer and he understands how deeply we care about our stupid rules. He then made an offer that I couldn’t refuse. Let’s just say I pled guilty to a lesser charge of being an annoying engineer obsessed with ridiculous details that no one else in society cares about.

It has been said that there are no winners in court. This was true for me and my downloaded PDF of the MUTCD. I lost. I lost because I was late for a flight and was driving too fast and got caught. The city also lost because cherry-picking tourists at the airport to bleed one last painful credit card transaction from them before they leave and often causing them to miss their flights is a little low. If you were a tourist and this happened to you, would you return to vacation in the City of No MUTCD?

My fellow transportation engineers lost because no matter how hard we work on the MUTCD, I learned, our legal system can loophole it. It is true that localities can amend the MUTCD, but that was not the case here—I checked the amendments and supplemental beacons were not addressed.

The matter-of-fact statement from a very well-respected city attorney that “the MUTCD does not apply in our city” was a little shocking to hear. This was said by a city attorney who is famous in the City of No MUTCD for a new public-safety law he championed a few years ago. He has practiced law for 25 years, and I didn’t challenge the validity of his statute, just his interpretation of the statute.

I’ve practiced engineering for 25 years, all the time believing that the big colorful book we call the MUTCD was sacrosanct. I realize now that we transportation engineers are the last line of defense in traffic safety, not the courts. We can’t assume that the legal system will uphold the MUTCD and force us to follow our own rules. We just have to get it right on our own.

One thing I love about the MUTCD is that traffic engineers often disagree on its interpretation. Just for kicks, can you find anything wrong with the sign in this photo? If yes, or if you want to defend the sign, I’d like your opinion. Just e-mail me at [email protected].

About the Author

Baxter is ITS practice leader for Stantec Inc., St. Cloud, Fla.

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