By Richard J. Ashton, Chief of Police (Retired), Frederick, Maryland; and Grant/Technical Management Manager, IACP
he Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, (MUTCD), which defines the standards for signs, signals, and pavement markings in the United States, is an important guidebook for local communities seeking information about how to install and maintain traffic control devices. But are law enforcement executives impressed that the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) issued the 2009 MUTCD, which took effect January 15, 2010, and is replacing the 2003 MUTCD? Perhaps not; they probably do not even care what fluorescent pink means (read on). However, to the degree that they are responsible for traffic control devices in the jurisdictions they serve, these executives should be paying close attention to this document containing national standards, since every state must be “in substantial conformance” with the 2009 MUTCD within two years.1 It contains a plethora of detailed material intended to provide consistency to the signals, markings, and signs adorning the nation’s highways, and that material is presented in terms of a standard (“requires” or “prohibits”—that is, “shall” or “shall not”), a guidance (“recommends” or “discourages”—that is, “should” or “should not”), an option (“permits” or “allows”—that is, “may”), or a support (“informs” or “suggests”).2
Part 6 of the 2009 MUTCD, entitled “Temporary Traffic Control,” establishes the basis for temporary traffic control (TTC) and, like the 2003 MUTCD, enumerates 46 typical applications.3 Typical applications essentially are TTC templates that may be adapted to the myriad situations that law enforcement officers encounter on a daily basis.4 Chapter 6I, entitled “Control of Traffic through Traffic Incident Management Areas,” probably is the MUTCD chapter most pertinent to law enforcement executives, and a number of its provisions are discussed subsequently.5 Significantly, it contains no standards—only guidance, option, and support statements.
Law enforcement officers directing traffic; investigating crashes; or handling lane closures, obstructed roadways, and disasters on all public roads—rather than only on federal aid highways, as previously—must wear high-visibility safety apparel meeting either the Class 2 or 3 ANSI/ISEA 107-2004 standard in the “American National Standard for High-Visibility Safety Apparel and Headwear” or the ANSI/ISEA 207-2006 standard in the “American National Standard for High-Visibility Public Safety Vests.”6 The IACP Highway Safety Committee (HSC) and its Law Enforcement Stops and Safety Subcommittee (LESSS) successfully worked with the FHWA in 2006 to ensure the activities addressed by the high-visibility safety apparel rule reflected the reality that law enforcement officers, by nature of their multiple and diverse responsibilities, are the only highway workers who need to be visible at certain times and inconspicuous at others.7 Between 1996 and 2008, an average of one law enforcement officer was struck and killed each month,8 so the increased conspicuity of officers performing traffic-related duties is beneficial to their safety and reduces the chances of their not being seen by motorists.
In a similar vein, adult school crossing guards are required to wear high-visibility safety apparel meeting the Class 2 ANSI/ISEA 107–2004 standard9 and to use a stop paddle.10 However, they are not permitted to “direct traffic in the usual law enforcement regulatory sense. In the control of traffic, they shall pick opportune times to create a sufficient gap in the traffic flow. At these times, they shall stand in the roadway to indicate that pedestrians are about to use or are using the crosswalk, and that all vehicular traffic must stop.”11 The traditional school sign with a yellow background will be phased out and replaced with one with a fluorescent yellow-green background.12
Safe Emergency Parking
An abundance of vehicles with emergency lights activated at any incident can cloud the message they are attempting to convey, distract and confuse drivers, and jeopardize the safety of first responders. Similarly, the random parking of emergency vehicles can needlessly divert drivers’ attention, endanger those working at incidents, and contribute to secondary crashes. Accordingly, the new term “safe-positioned” was inserted in the 2009 MUTCD to generate discussion between public safety agencies about the desirability of parking emergency vehicles in an organized fashion that promotes first responders’ ability to discharge safely the important tasks at hand and that decreases the likelihood of unnecessarily hampering the flow of traffic. Safe-positioned is defined as “the positioning of emergency vehicles at an incident in a manner that attempts to protect both the responders performing their duties and road users traveling through the incident scene, while minimizing, to the extent practical, disruption of the adjacent traffic flow.”13 Like the support statement emphasizing that the purpose of emergency-vehicle lighting is to warn drivers,14 safe-positioned encourages public safety agencies to work in concert with one another to develop procedures and training for the benefit of all concerned. The HSC supported this concept.
Here are several key provisions that may heighten the interest of law enforcement officials in the 2009 MUTCD:
- A new phrase, “private road open to public travel,” is introduced and includes the roadways of airports, recreational facilities, shopping centers, sports arenas, and toll roads that are privately owned, but where the public is allowed to travel without access restrictions.15 The responsibility for traffic control devices on this type of property rests with the private owner or private official having jurisdiction, but the devices installed must be substantially compliant with the MUTCD.16 However, the MUTCD is inapplicable to parking garages, parking spaces, and driving aisles within parking lots, whether they are publicly or privately owned.17
- Military bases no longer are exempt from the provisions of the MUTCD.18
- Traffic incidents are classified as major (with an expected duration of more than two hours), intermediate (with an expected duration of 30 minutes to two hours), or minor (with an expected duration of under 30 minutes).19 The classification system can serve as a basis for policy development and training, the aim of which is to expeditiously and safely move the greatest volume of traffic. The classification system presents a practical scheme for law enforcement officers interacting with other public safety and highway workers to provide stability, for example, at traffic crashes or chemical spills.
- Law enforcement, fire, or emergency medical services vehicles that respond to emergencies from midblock locations, such as fire stations, now can stop other vehicles to facilitate their egress and establish their right-of-way by employing emergency-vehicle hybrid beacons that meet the standards set forth in the 2009 MUTCD.20
- Law enforcement officers and other emergency responders are exempted from the rule prohibiting the use of hand signals alone to control traffic.21
- Flares and light sticks are intended to be deployed initially at traffic incidents; replaced by, or supplemented with, channelizing devices; and removed at an incident’s conclusion.22 Light sticks were added to the 2009 MUTCD in recognition of their increasing use and of the problems inherent in employing traditional flares. While traditional flares are highly visible on the ground at distances of three-quarters of one mile to one mile,23 they are detrimental to first responders’ health, especially because they can cause burns;24 are hazardous at spills involving gasoline or other combustibles;25 and pose a fire danger when stored in cruisers’ trunks.26 When they are left in roadways at the end of incidents, flares’ metal spikes or wire stands create road hazards to passing vehicles.27 They also can be quite harmful to the environment: “A single unburned 20-minute flare can potentially contaminate up to 2.2 acre-feet of water.”28
- The FHWA now recommends that TTC procedures for planned special events impacting traffic, such as parades, street fairs, or farmers’ markets, be developed and approved “by the agency or agencies that have jurisdiction over the affected roadways.”29 Originally, TTC procedures were to be accepted by the appropriate “highway” agency. However, “highway” was eliminated in the final rule so law enforcement agencies can become more involved in the formation and acceptance of TTC procedures for these events.
- Yield signs were added in the 2009 MUTCD to the existing guidance that stop signs should not be used for speed control.30 Instead, the FHWA recommends a system of alternating two-way stops to control neighborhood traffic.31
Fortunately for law enforcement, the number of typical MUTCD applications has remained at 46. There was, however, a strong effort to add 9 “typical traffic incident management applications” to the 2009 MUTCD.32 The HSC unanimously voted on June 7, 2008, to oppose the inclusion of these typical applications in the 2009 MUTCD, where they conceivably could be interpreted as standards rather than as recommendations. While the IACP HSC is not against their voluntarily adopting and utilizing the proposed typical applications to promote consistency in incident management, its concerns, which follow, center around enumerating them in the 2009 MUTCD:
- Although the use of “should” in the proposed typical applications would have made carrying five cones and one sign “guidance,” the legal distinctions between “may,” “shall,” and “should” frequently become blurred during litigation and conceivably could create legal troubles for police officers and the jurisdictions in which they are employed. This point remains problematic to officers who often are the first to arrive at traffic crashes and whose cruisers physically lack the available space to carry five cones and one sign—in addition to all of the other equipment they need. Nonetheless, were an officer asked by the plaintiff’s attorney at a civil trial which of the proposed typical applications had been employed and the officer responded that none of them had been used, that response could provide the plaintiff’s attorney with fodder. The “may,” “shall,” and “should” distinctions in the MUTCD could be trumped by the fact that the officer failed to use any typical application and someone was killed or seriously injured. Such an argument often persuades a jury to favor the family of the decedent or the injured person, even though the officer did nothing wrong by handling a traffic incident based on training and experience rather than on applying an inappropriate and discretionary typical application.
- A police officer, especially one assigned to a rural area, may be the only law enforcement officer at a traffic collision. The officer, as the first-arriving unit, cannot reasonably be expected to ignore a crash victim with life-threatening injuries in order to place five cones and one sign, for example, up to 100 feet beyond the crash scene in both directions (in a 40-mile-per-hour or lower speed zone).
- Traffic incidents are dynamic, unlike workzones that tend to be more predictable, and do not fit neatly into the proposed typical applications. Unfortunately, individuals, including police officers and other responders, are killed or seriously injured on occasion. However, police officers and their employing jurisdictions should not be penalized for handling traffic incidents on the basis of officers’ training and experience and without regard to the proposed typical applications.
The proposed typical applications were not in law enforcement’s best interests and were not included in the 2009 MUTCD. This is another occasion on which the FHWA considered and supported an HSC recommendation.
Hopefully, the few provisions discussed have stimulated law enforcement executives’ interest in the importance of the 2009 MUTCD and have motivated other first-response disciplines to promote uniformity across the country for everyone’s benefit. But, in the event anyone’s curiosity has not been sufficiently satisfied, fluorescent pink is the standard color specifically reserved for incident management33—a fact about which some may not have been aware. ■
1FHWA, Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices for Streets and Highways (2009), I-1, I-3, http://mutcd.fhwa.dot.gov/pdfs/2009/mutcd2009edition.pdf (accessed February 25, 2010).
4Ibid., 619, 631–725.
6Ibid., 564, 566.
7For additional information, see Richard J. Ashton, “New Federal Rule Seeks to Improve Officer Visibility at Roadside,” in the July 2007 issue of the Police Chief at http://policechiefmagazine.org/magazine/index.cfm?fuseaction=display_arch&article_id=1227&issue_id=72007 (accessed February 19, 2010).
8Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted 2008, October 2009, table 61, http://www.fbi.gov/ucr/killed/2008/data/table_61.html (accessed February 26, 2010); FBI, Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted 2005, October 2006, table 59, http://www.fbi.gov/ucr/killed/2005/table59.htm (accessed February 26, 2010).
9FHWA, MUTCD (2009), 745.
12Ibid., 10, 33, 734, 743.
17Ibid., I1, 18.
23Dr. Charlie Mesloh, Dr. Mark Henych, Dr. Ross Wolf, Komaal Collie, Brandon Wargo, and Chris Berry, “Evaluation of Chemical and Electric Flares,” National Criminal Justice Reference Service, Document No. 224277, http://www.ice4safety.com/sitebuildercontent/sitebuilderfiles/roadflareevaldoj.pdf (accessed March 1, 2010).
29FHWA, MUTCD (2009), 619.
31FHWA, “23 CFR Part 655: National Standards for Traffic Control Devices; the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices for Streets and Highways; Revision; Final Rule,” Federal Register 74, no. 240 (December 16, 2009): 66743, http://edocket.access.gpo.gov/2009/pdf/E9-28322.pdf (accessed February 26, 2010).
33FHWA, MUTCD (2009), 10.
Please cite as:
Richard J. Ashton, "Highway Safety Initiatives: Federal Highway Administration Issues 2009 Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices," The Police Chief 77 (April 2010): 144–146,
http://policechiefmagazine.org/magazine/index.cfm?fuseaction=display&issue_id=42010&category_ID=11 (insert access date).