Talk Like a Traffic Sign


Note:  Copyright of this article has been transferred to the Institute of Transportation Engineers upon it being published in the July 2019 issue of the ITE Journal.

As transportation professionals, each of us – consultants, public agency staff, and researchers – have at least one thing in common: the need to get our message to an audience. Gaining buy-in from clients, citizens, and peers requires us to communicate clearly, concisely, and persuasively.

One of the most effective communicators in the world is not an engineer or scientist. Born in 1915 and standing 7 feet tall, its iconic message causes the largest of machines to stop in their tracks. Some know it by its shape, others by color, and still others by its one-word message.

Traffic engineers call it R1-1. The rest of the world calls it a Stop Sign.

The Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) helps us communicate safe and efficient use of the highway system across the United States. The MUTCD is the standard for signing, striping, signals, and related items to help all road users travel safely.

MUTCD principles have application beyond the roadside to help us convey information – not just about traffic control, but anything at all.

The Purpose of Communication
Let’s start at the very beginning. Part 1. Chapter 1A. Section 1A.01.


The MUTCD clearly describes its intended purpose by answering the following questions:
• What does it do? Promote highway safety and efficiency.
• For whom? All road users.
• How? Provide for the orderly movement on streets, highways, bikeways, and private roads open to public travel.

What is the purpose of your communication? How will you achieve this purpose, and whom will it impact? In Give Your Speech, Change the World, author Nick Morgan challenges us: “If you’re going to take all the trouble to prepare and deliver a speech, make it worthwhile.” Morgan shares the potential value of the message: “We bother giving speeches because of the opportunities they offer presenters with passion and a cause.”

Whether giving a keynote speech to a full banquet hall, presenting to City Council, or e-mailing a coworker, we must identify a clear desired outcome.

Applying MUTCD Principles
The MUTCD next describes requirements each traffic control device should meet before it is installed on a publicly-traveled roadway in Section 1A.02, Principles of Traffic Control Devices.


Fulfill a need
As any sign, stripe, or signal should only be installed to address a need, so should our communication. Just as unwarranted signs cause distractions for road users, unnecessary e-mails, phone calls, social media posts, and weekly meetings can create clutter for all of us.

Why are you making the next phone call, or sending another e-mail? What need are you fulfilling with your firm’s next press release or social media post? Is this afternoon’s meeting solving a problem, sharing a new idea, or just checking a box?

Command attention
Why should you be listened to? Maybe it’s your qualifications, experience, or current skill sets. Maybe your idea itself is worthy of attention. If you identify the communication purpose and tie it to a real need, the next step is to ensure your message is heard. These days it is difficult to stand above the deluge of information each person receives daily.

The MUTCD ensures traffic signs command attention with a clean, clear message using symbols or very few words, standardized colors and fonts, and consistency. A Stop Sign uses each of these. Its red color and “FHWA Series” font have remained the same for decades and are standardized nationwide. Its unique octagonal shape and vertical placement 7 feet above the edge of pavement ensure it is noticed.

What is the first sentence of your article, or your first words on stage? How do you greet attendees when they enter a public meeting? When behind the podium, how do you command the attention of the audience?

Convey a clear, simple meaning
With only a simple shape and color combination of yellow and black, Chevron Alignment signs alert the driver that they are in a curve – not just any curve, but one that requires their attention and care. The sign has no words, and it’s typically quite small, but its meaning is clear: “Be careful here or you’ll end up in the ditch.”

Improve your messaging with two important words: Clarify. Simplify. Your presentations, correspondence, and phone calls should have a single, easy-to-understand purpose.

Command respect
Traffic control devices that “make the cut” to be included in the MUTCD require research, testing, and continuous improvements to meet the ongoing needs of road users. Facts are required to demonstrate and ensure that we continue to install, maintain, and operate devices for safety and efficiency.

As a young traffic engineer learning the ropes, I was taught to “be the expert.” I observed traffic in early mornings and late nights, weekdays and weekends. Bolstered by these data and my observations, when I met with a citizen who said, “Buddy, you don’t know what this place is like on Saturday mornings – it’s a madhouse,” I could reply with, “I may not know everything, but when I watched traffic last weekend, this is what I saw…”

Without including facts, data, and findings based on experience, your opinions command little respect from our industry and road users, and you are likely to be tuned out. By bringing analytical findings, before-and-after data with statistical rigor, and analysis of impact – and communicating it clearly and concisely – you will command respect from your audience.

Give adequate time for a proper response
Signs and traffic signals are placed on the roadside and above the roadway so road users have plenty of time to receive the message and respond appropriately. Device shapes, sizes, and font styles are combined to ensure adequate response time.

In your communication, leave some “white space” for others to participate. Ensure time for questions during or after your presentation, and hang around after to talk with the audience. In meetings, try talking a bit less and listening a bit more.

Putting it All Together
Treat your presentation audience, workshop attendee, or essay reader like a road user, with the same potential distractions they might have while traveling. They are coming to your presentation or reading your research paper with other things on their mind, and it is up to you to compel them to pay attention to you. Use these lessons from the MUTCD to share your message, and to make the world a better place.

Photo Credit: Photos Public Domain,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: