25,000 Comments Call for Safety Reforms in a Transportation Engineering ‘Bible’

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Overhaul of the MUTCD
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More than 25,000 public comments were submitted to the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) on proposed changes to the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD).

Our team at Salud America! developed three model comments asking FHWA to adopt a public health and Safe System Approach to reframe and rewrite the 700-page MUTCD, one of transportation engineering’s “bibles” that guides road creation.

More than 2,100 people visited our model comments over 30 days and nearly 450 people submitted our model comments.

“This enormous volume of comments (a more than ten-fold increase over the last time the MUTCD was updated in 2009) demonstrates the degree to which Americans want change,” according to a post from the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO).

Now, we wait for FHWA to issue a final rule.

Amendment Process for Revising the MUTCD

Before the FHWA accepts any revisions to the MUTCD, it must go through the following two-step Federal Register rulemaking process:

  1. Notice of Proposed Amendments (NPA): FHWA publishes proposed changes to the MUTCD in the Federal Register to give the public an opportunity to provide comments.
  2. Final Rule (FR): The Final Rule describes the FHWA’s final decision concerning the proposals for changes to the MUTCD.

This process is important because it gives people, transportation experts, elected leaders, and industry groups the opportunity to offer opinions and concerns about proposed changes to the MUTCD.

The first step, the public comment period, ended on May 14, 2021. FHWA is required to consider the 25,000 comments before issuing a Final Rule.

“[The Final Rule] can include the following: adopt a proposed change, defer the proposed change pending further research, or adopt a modification to the proposed change based on docket comments and or other additional information received,” according to FHWA.

However, this situation is a bit more complicated than usual because many of the public comments, our Salud America! model comments included, call for FHWA to rewrite the MUTCD.

Debate Over a Greater Overhaul of the MUTCD

Many cities and organizations are calling for a rewrite of the MUTCD.

This is because they believe line-by-line revisions to the current burdensome and outdated manual are not acceptable to address our country’s poor safety record.

NACTO completed a full review of the 1,000 page draft manual with staff from their 89 member cities and transit agencies and developed over 400 detailed, technical comments.

While some of the comments provide line-by-line edits, many provide higher-level recommendations to reframe and overhaul the MUTCD.

Check out a list of all of the cities and organizations that support an MUTCD overhaul.

“The combination of detailed line edits, recommendations on structure and frame, and suggestions for an improved process outlined in our comments would be a huge step forward for FHWA, the MUTCD, and American streets,” according to NACTO. “Incorporating these comments would form the basis of a reframed, rewritten, and renewed MUTCD that prioritizes safety and the needs of more people on our streets.”

However, some transportation professionals and state departments of transportation are concerned that an overhaul will negate years of work done by volunteers on the proposed changes.

“To essentially dismiss this and other efforts to-date in developing useful, thoughtful comments by rescinding the NPA and starting over again not only dismisses years of important work by FHWA and countless volunteers, but also misses the opportunity to save lives now,” according to a public comment from Meg B. Pirkel on behalf of the Georgia Department of Transportation.

Given that traffic fatalities have remained consistent recently despite the 10 editions to the MUTCD in 82 years, many people are skeptical that the current updates will actually save lives now.

Overhaul of the MUTCDMoreover, others are more concerned about the revisions themselves than the people involved in drafting the changes.

This includes Angie Schmitt, author of Right of Way: Race, Class, and the Silent Epidemic of Pedestrian Deaths in America.

“The worst defense of the MUTCD is ‘a lot of volunteers worked hard on it.’ What matters it the final product and how it effects people. There is no A for effort. We’re adults,” Schmitt tweeted.

Many are concerned why this important update process is left to volunteers. Volunteers traditionally have very little accountability.

“If we have the money to enforce the laws in the name of safety 24/7/365 days a year, we should have the money for a few dozen man hours once every 5 years, to fund roadways safety reviews, action plans and assure factual foundations for the laws being enforced,” wrote Charles Dornsife, Executive Director Best Highway Safety Practices Institute, in his public comment.

Additionally, some are concerned about how those volunteers are selected, suggesting lack of diversity.

Below are statements from public comments submitted by national organizations, major U.S. cities, and safety advocates calling for greater reforms to the MUTCD.

Statements from Public Comments to Reform the MUTCD

The City of Oklahoma City: The Manual overemphasizes efficient motor vehicle operations on rural highways, while neglecting other modes and contexts.

The City of Oklahoma City: Current MUTCD standards often prevent the City of Oklahoma City from designing the safest possible infrastructure of for all road users.

The City of Oklahoma City: The City of Oklahoma City’s bicycle and pedestrian master plan, bikewalkokc, calls for several infrastructure treatments recommended by NACTO, AASHTO, and other esteemed traffic organizations, which are not currently allowed in the MUTCD.

The City of Baltimore: We should not have to operate on the footnotes or exceptions that allow for engineering judgment in order to implement safety improvements. Cities need a document with direct, context-sensitive guidance, not just flexibility, in how to truly make an all-ages walkable network that is safe and serves our residents; not just those driving.

The City of Baltimore: To date, the MUTCD has done little to help stem the approximately 40,000 traffic deaths the U.S. sees each year. This is due largely to the Manual’s over-emphasis on motor vehicle operations and efficiency on rural highways, and neglect of other modes and contexts.

NACTO: Disproven and unsafe practices remain in place, despite significant research and evidence on alternatives.

The City of Minneapolis: To achieve these goals and meet the values inherent in Minneapolis, our transportation professionals need the freedom to creatively and responsibly plan, design and operate the transportation network in a manner that aligns with our City vision. And to do that, we cannot be thwarted by a “one size fits all” manual that ignores the realities of an urban focused environment such as Minneapolis and many other cities small and large.

The City of Houston: 60% of crashes happen on 6% of our streets. As we aim to make our streets safer for people walking, biking, using wheelchairs, and people driving, we look to documents like the MUTCD to guide our decision-making. However, we believe that the proposed draft undercuts the [Biden] Administration by continuing to elevate operational efficiency for motor vehicles above safe and accessible mobility for people.

The East-West Gateway Council of Governments: As the St. Louis region’s Metropolitan Planning Organization, East West Gateway Council of Governments (EWG) is committed to improving mobility options for all residents. [The MUTCD] can prohibit common sense, balanced, and locally preferred improvements. The draft MUTCD provisions are myopic in that they largely ignore the community, local economy, environmental, pedestrian, and cyclist functions of a street.

The East-West Gateway Council of Governments: MUTCD guidance has, on many occasions, restricted area engineers from considering nonvehicular issues for any given place. We have many examples of streets that are dangerous, commercially stagnant, and have a blighting effect on adjacent neighborhoods because of stringent adherence to MUTCD guidance.

The City of Memphis: While I have worked to bring about needed safety improvements on our streets for active transportation, the requirements of the MUTCD often add burdensome steps when considering some solutions, or outright prevents the consideration of others.

The City of Providence: The City of Providence urges FHWA to expand the transparency and inclusivity of its process for reconciling comments and finalizing the 11th edition of the MUTCD and commit to a more timely process for future updates. FHWA should develop a process for the MUTCD that allows for thoughtful experimentation and ensures that new research and life-saving design practices can be quickly incorporated into the document and more expeditiously deployed at scale.

58 State Legislators: As proposed, the draft presently being considered perpetuates fundamental flaws of priority and focus that decrease safety and eliminates access for many. A demonstrated history of pedestrian deaths continues to be required to justify installation of a traffic signal to allow non-motorized travelers to cross a road. Unnecessary barriers to implementing bicycle and transit infrastructure are created. Traffic control devices appropriate for urban contexts, such as dedicated on street transit lanes and pedestrian safety measures, are subject to arbitrary and unjustified high standards of testing.

Bill Schultheiss of Toole Design Group: In 2016, Robert Grossmann, aged 64, was killed crossing Georgia Avenue at Rippling Brook Drive. He was crossing the road to access a bus stop. He did not have the benefit of any traffic control devices as engineers had decided he would be safer “leaving it unmarked.” He was victim blamed for his death by the police who reported “he was not in a crosswalk when he was struck.1” Two weeks ago, his wife, Claire Weissmeyer Grossmann, aged 63, was killed crossing the same roadway at a recently (2019) signalized marked crosswalk 1,000 feet away from where her husband died. Like her husband, she had just gotten off a bus and was attempting to walk home. “The deaths of the Grossmanns, of course, are not accidents, and they were certainly not a coincidence. They are the direct result of a transportation system that consistently fails to prioritize the safety of people who walk over the convenience of people who drive.2” Given the time of night and the commonplace practice of State maintained roadways having long evening cycle lengths, it is possible that Ms. Grossmann attempted to cross in a gap in traffic instead of waiting a minute or even two to have the ability to cross the road with the benefit of the light at 11pm at night. It is not uncommon for people to feel uncomfortable waiting to cross a roadway when alone at night when they may feel vulnerable in the darkness. For years people and politicians have complained about crossing this roadway to the Maryland State Highway Agency. Their pleas for improvements are often met with a response that there is little that can be done because signal warrants cannot be met or people should use a nearby signal which may be more than 1,000 feet away.

Check back for updates regarding FHWA Final Rule.

Learn more about NACTO’s campaign to update the MUTCD.

By The Numbers By The Numbers

27

percent

of Latinos rely on public transit (compared to 14% of whites).

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