Mixed Messages: Street Name Sign Changes

In the 2009 National Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD), some of the standards for street name signs have changed. This has led to a lot of confusion, controversy and media coverage. Interestingly, some of the most controversial things have actually been the rule in the MUTCD for many years. The information in this article includes changes due to the 2010 New York State Supplement (NYS Supplement). Unless otherwise noted, the details are based upon the combination of the National MUTCD and NYS Supplement which together are the official MUTCD in New York State.

MUTCD Standard

Portion of MUTCD Figure 2D-10

Portion of MUTCD Figure 2D-10 -
Street Name and Parking Signs

The standard for street name signs (Designation D3-1) can be found in section 2D.43 ‘Street Name Signs’ in the MUTCD.

With the new MUTCD, the lettering style and allowable colors have changed. There are four significant aspects each agency needs to think about for any new street name signs: mixed-case lettering style, lettering size, sign blank size, and allowable colors.

Mixed-Case Lettering Style

With new and replaced signs, the lettering needs to be a mix of upper and lower-case letters. The first letter of each name or abbreviation SHALL be upper-case and the rest of the lettering in the name or abbreviation SHALL be lower-case (see ‘Shall, Should & May’).

Mixed-case lettering is easier to recognize. With ALL-CAPS, the letters can look like a big square block from a distance and it is hard to discern the different letters. It takes longer to interpret the sign and drivers have less time to react. In the case of STOP or YIELD or many warning signs with text, we are also using color to help travelers to recognize the sign. Also, most of the words on these signs are so well known that users recognize them easily. With lower-case letters, it is easier to tell one name from another. Take a look at: Miller, ‘Maple, and ‘Monroe. Even in the small font shown here, it is easy to tell them apart. In lower-case, a word’s shape is recognizable from farther away and the driver does not need to slow down as much. To help you remember which style to use, think about placing the words on the street name sign the same way you write your name in a letter. If I had a street named after me, it would be ‘David P Orr Rd’, not ‘DAVID P ORR RD.’

Lettering Size

For typical two-lane highways, there are two lettering sizes that can be used: six inches (6”) or four inches (4”). The lower-case letters are typically about ¾ the height of the upper-case letters, but in some cases they are full-height (b, d, f, h, k, l, t) and in some cases they descend below the line defined by the bottom of the initial capital (g, j, p, q, y). The choice of which to use depends upon the speed along the highway. If the speed limit is 30 mph or less, the smaller size is allowed. If the speed limit is 35 or more, the larger sign is required. Outside of New York State, the cutoff for the smaller lettering size is 25 mph (see the table on page 9). The abbreviation for the road label (road, street, avenue, etc.) is at least 3/4 the size of the main name letters. If there is an initial at the beginning for the cardinal direction of the road (such as North or East), that letter size will also be smaller. You may use the larger size letters if the word is an essential part of the name. If people would typically refer the road by just the name, an abbreviation such as ‘N’ or ‘E’ is all you need and the smaller size is good. On the other hand, of the direction is always part of the name (such as North Main St) then spell out the direction and use the larger letters.

Sizes for Street Name Signs on Two-lane Highways
Posted Speed Limit Along Highway Sign Blade Height Upper Case Lower Case
35 mph or more 12 inches 6 inches 4 ½ inches
30 mph or less* 8 inches 4 inches 3 inches

* Outside of New York State the speed cutoff allowing the smaller size is 25 mph

The table above shows blade height and text heights for street name signs on 2-lane highways. Use the posted speed limit to determine which size to use. For multi-lane highways, refer to the MUTCD for the required size of the lettering. In many cases, the minimum size will be larger. If mounting a Street Name sign over a Stop sign, the smaller size may be used because the driver only needs to read the sign from a stopped position. However, make sure the sign is legible. Other Street Name signs at the intersection may need to have larger lettering.

Sign Blank Height

Top: Sign Name on Properly Sized Blade; Bottom: Sign Name on ¾ Height Blade - INCORRECT
Top: Sign Name on Properly Sized Blade
Bottom: Sign Name on ¾ Height Blade - INCORRECT

Part of the controversy about the new standards is because many agencies used nine-inch-high (9”) blanks that are “no longer allowed”. The truth is that the older New York State MUTCD always required that the height of the sign blade be twice the height of the lettering. For a six-inch (6”) letters, the blade needs to be twelve inches (12”) in height. For a four-inch (4”) letters, the blade needs to be eight inches (8”) in height. These heights are now required by the National MUTCD.

Some people will still want to put the six-inch letters on a nine-inch blank. However, in order to do this, any lower-case letters that drop below the baseline would have to be slightly raised to clear the border on the sign. In the figure below, the example on the bottom is what the name ‘Spongy St’ looks like when trying to put six-inch letters on a nine-inch blade. This makes the sign less legible and does not look respectable.

A sufficient amount of ‘background space’ around text is necessary for legibility. The MUTCD allows the border to be omitted on a street name sign, but the blade size does not change.

Allowable Colors

Under the new standards, there are only four allowable choices for the sign colors: a white legend on a green, blue or brown background, or a black legend on a white background. Too many highway agencies had been using odd colors that were not high contrast or which were already reserved for other signs. Street name signs within the Adirondack Park are allowed to be yellow on brown.

4 Acceptable color combinations for street name signs.
4 Acceptable color combinations for street name signs.
Yellow on brown is not shown, and is ONLY acceptable in the Adirondack Park.

Conclusion

All of these changes are for NEW and replaced signs. As you replace your existing signs, bring the new signs up to the MUTCD standard. If you have signs in stock with all caps, keep using them. However, they still need to be legible and meet the size and other standards in force when the sign was ordered. Over time, all street name signs will be replaced with ones that meet the new MUTCD standards.

Spring 2011

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This work by the Cornell Local Roads Program (CLRP) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.