In case you missed it, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) released the 11th edition of the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices for Streets and Highways, known as the MUTCD. The manual, last updated in 2009, is the national standard for traffic signs and the most influential transportation publication in the United States.
Wonky-sounding? Yes, but to transportation professionals, this is a really big deal. Whether you travel by car, by bike, on a bus, or on foot — your travel is influenced by the MUTCD.
For example, the manual outlines ways to set speed limits, including the 85th percentile approach, which is often interpreted as a “rule” but which is not federally mandated. In the 85th percentile approach, speeds are too often set inappropriately fast, with engineers adjusting speed limits to match observed driver behavior instead of influencing driver behavior to align with safety goals and the law. As the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) describes, “when it comes to safety, the 85th percentile approach is designed to fail.”
The new edition of the MUTCD provides flexibility to prioritize safe mobility for all people, including those moving outside cars. One important example: the new manual downplays the primacy of the 85th percentile as the main factor in setting speed limits and, instead, encourages consideration of important, contextual factors, such as land use, pedestrian activity and frequency of crashes. The updated MUTCD specifically states, “On urban and suburban arterials, and on rural arterials that serve as main streets through developed areas of communities, the 85th-percentile speed should not be used to set speed limits” without considering those other contextual factors. That’s an important improvement.
You can read all 1,100 pages of the MUTCD and reference the Federal Register notice, which provides detailed discussion of major changes from the prior edition. The notice describes FHWA's decisions to de-emphasize the 85th-percentile speed as a primary factor in setting speed limits and encourage a comprehensive approach to determining appropriate speed limits.
Following are links sharing perspectives and background on safety elements that have - and have not - changed in the new MUTCD:
- NACTO had identified six key reforms to move toward a safer, more people-focused transportation system. NACTO’s statement says that while the 11th Edition of the MUTCD does not “include every necessary reform to create comprehensively safe streets, it moves us closer to US DOT’s goal of a transportation system that is safe, sustainable, and equitable.”
- Smart Growth America says that the Newly updated MUTCD doesn’t go far enough to protect pedestrians. They explain that the MUTCD is cited as a barrier to many common-sense safety interventions in almost every state Department of Transportation, so engineers continue to use the status quo instead of more flexible options which “require an engineer to create something new, something most overworked agency engineers do not have time to do. Even when they do, their general council usually cautions against trying new things because flexibility does not come with the same legal coverage.”
- Bloomberg’s US Roadbuilding Bible Gets Update as Pedestrian Deaths Rise describes the positive news that the wait for the next edition of the MUTCD won’t be as long since the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law calls for updates of the manual every four years.
- The FHWA press release includes a statement from the US Transportation Deputy Secretary Polly Trottenberg: “We look forward to ongoing engagement and partnership with the transportation community so that the MUTCD becomes a living document which enables communities to embrace the designs and technologies that best serve their needs.”
- The League of American Bicyclists credits the 11th edition for solid changes to the speed limit setting section and shares a helpful chart summarizing changes for bicycle facilities (excerpt below).
Notably, this was the first time in the 88-year history of the MUTCD that the public had the opportunity to review and comment on the draft – and we did – sending in more than 100,000 comments. Streetsblog USA describes What’s In The New MUTCD (And What Isn’t)! and notes that this update is much better than it would have been if people had not spoken up.
As Mike McGinn of America Walks says: “the most important thing now is demanding that your local leadership deliver good streets. They’ll have more room to do so within this manual than they had before. But if we don’t speak up, it won’t happen." We agree, and are here to support local and state transportation staff to make critical safety improvements.
In an interview with Streetsblog, FHWA Administrator Shailen Bhatt said “ the MUTCD is just a guidebook” — one, he says, that he hopes communities will use to make safety improvements. The publication of the 11th edition provides a timely reminder of the critical role of transportation engineers – ranging from setting safe speed limits to designing roadways to support alternatives to driving.