Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

How modern traffic signs are born: 'Bikes may use full lane'

July 22, 2011 - 04:06 PM
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Does this beat 'share the road'? (Photo: MUTCD)

Modern traffic signs don't appear out of nowhere. A lengthy process determines how new traffic signs enter the roads, at times varying state by state. Let's take a look at one new sign that's emerging in the biking world to understand a little more about the broader issues surrounding traffic safety and culture.

Our overall culture of road markings initially arose slowly, which I brought up in a post of D.C. transit history the other week. In that post, I highlighted the reality of how transit experts had to come together in the early decades of the 20th century to formalize the rules of the road. They had to determine what signs worked best and create a consistent, uniform system easily understood by drivers and pedestrians in order to reduce the number of accidents.

But what about new traffic signs? How do they come about? Our laws and guidelines for driving and traffic safety don't now exist in an untouchable prism. They're still changing all the time in little ways. Look, for instance, at how regulations were changed to allow for the eventual advent of flying cars earlier this year.

But let's look at a case study far closer to the Earth: the 'Bikes May Use Full Lane' sign, also known as R4-11. To understand how this new traffic sign emerged as a distinct possibility for our roads, turn first to 2009.

The bible of modern traffic signs is the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices for Roads and Highways (MUTCD), a giant collection of recommendations released every few years and dominating how American states govern their streets for the last several decades (PDF). The Federal Highway Administration first unleashed the manual back in 1971, and the most recent incarnation was published in 2009 (the last before that came out in 2003).

The new edition of the MUTCD proposed the R4-11 traffic sign shown above. "Bikes May Use Full Lane," the white sign clearly explains. The general message stands in contrast to the yellow sign that has generally been used and cautions people to "share the road." Should states adopt the new road sign above? That's still up for debate across America and is being determined state by state.

With each new edition of the MUTCD, states have a couple years to either adapt the provisions or release a state supplement to the regulations. Virginia just released its own supplement, with information about how the state will handle the bike regulations in May of 2011 (PDF). Here, Virginia mandates that the sign will only have standard usage when "substandard width" lanes prevent a cyclist from safely occupying the right side of the road. The supplement also provides an option to use the sign when there's no available shoulder or bike lanes.

And you'd think we're done right? National standards were offered three years ago, the state of Virginia has its supplements ready ... we're at that "law" part now, right? Not quite. Virginia still has to present this supplement to the Commonwealth Transportation Board, which isn't expected to happen until this fall.

Maryland's state policy on the "Bikes May Use Full Lane" sign is still very much evolving. Earlier this summer came what appears to now be mistaken news that Maryland had rejected the sign, as this May 2011 letter from Maryland's statewide studies team shows (PDF). The team leader states that Maryland will not adopt the R4-11 sign and points to the reasoning that New York used: the sign "could mislead inexperienced bicyciists [sic] into occupying inappropriate, and unsafe, positions within a roadway." Instead, the official preference would be for Shared Lane markings or the yellow "Share the Road" signs. A strong reaction from the Washington Area Bicycle Association — in which a purported 625 e-mails were sent to Maryland officials advocating for the sign — have reopened the question. The last word was that Maryland officials did plan to "develop appropriate guidelines" for the traffic sign.

So much emotion over the road! It's a fun look into what's really a serious (if painstakingly long-term) process that continues the traditions I first described arising in the 1920s. This "Bikes May Use Full Lane" example is especially relevant to D.C. area bikers given the intensity that surrounds the different types of riders out there. We saw some of that earlier this month when WABA's Shane Farthing suggested new legislation allowing cyclists to fight back against angry, aggressive drivers more easily. There's a lot of vehicles out there sharing these roads, from cars to bikes to Segways, and the need for new, clear traffic signs is always evolving.

What do you think of this new proposed bike traffic sign that might be hitting of the region's states soon? Would bikes and cars benefit from a "Bicycles May Use Full Lane" sign or would this complicate our crowded roads?

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