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The transition to the MUTCD

Early Vintage Traffic Signals
An early example of a motoring club-funded sign, via Alproads.net.
At the turn of the 20th century, cars became increasingly popular and affordable. Cross country trips were more feasible and traffic gradually increased. With more traffic, accidents and road safety issues gained the attention of government officials. Up until the 1920s, highways and roadways were controlled by private auto-clubs which dictated everything from maintenance and tolls to the signs used on their roadways. It was not uncommon to see signs that were laden with heavy propaganda, supporting the sponsoring club. These signs were often indiscernible to people unfamiliar with the area.

In the early 1920s, the need for regulation and traffic control was apparent. Three businessmen, W.F. Rosenwald, J. T. Donaghey, and A. H. Winkle, traveled through several states in order to observe roadway needs and develop uniform signage. They reported their findings at the Mississippi Valley Association of State Highway Departments and led a plan for uniform sign shapes, including diamond danger signs and the octagonal stop sign.

Following this initial success, several different groups attempted to regulate signs and highways on a national level. The American Association of State Highway Transportation Officials and the National Conference on Street and Highway Safety released standards for traffic control. Initially, only yellow signs were used; red and green were rejected due to low visibility at night.

These meetings also regulated highway mile markers, serving as a platform to unify national travel. The conferences proved thoroughly successful. The first conference was held in December 1924, another followed in March 1926, and by 1929 the National Conference on Street and Highway Safety had drafted a manual for rural roads with the American Engineering Council.

Traffic Control Signs

New signage was often accompanied by public education campaigns.

Despite the crucial need for uniformity, many different organizations were involved in creating traffic control standards for urban areas. Their efforts produced the Manual on Street Traffic Signs, Signals, and Markings in 1930. Unfortunately, the presence of two separate sets of standards for urban and rural areas meant all the problems had not yet been solved.

By 1934, the National Conference on Street and Highway Safety and the American Association of State Highway Transportation Officials formed a joint committee and drafted the first Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices for Streets and Highways (MUTCD). This first MUTCD was fairly comprehensive; it addressed signs, street markings, signals, and islands. Additionally, the manual broached legal issues, designs, location, and maintenance. It even contained several illustrations and appendices. The manual also divided signs into categories based on their function: regulatory, warning, or guide. Using symbols to convey meaning became more popular afterwards, reducing legibility issues for drivers. Another safety feature, cats-eyes, were added to increase reflectivity on signs at night. Cats-eyes are small glass bearings that reflect the headlights shines on them. Measurement specifications were also outlined.

These regulations marked the end of unique commercial flourishes on regulatory signs that were common in the days of auto-clubs. Text font and size were controlled to ease comprehension for drivers and all symbols were uniform to prevent ambiguity.

Signs have evolved with technological advancements, like the invention of reflective film. New industries mean new danger sites, which require new signage. Despite these changes, many of the initial outlines of the 1935 MUTCD remain in effect today, most notably sign shapes.