Why US Signage Differs from the Rest of the World
Suppose you’ve ever traveled to almost any major tourist spot outside the country. In that case, you’d see that roads and highway signage from all over Europe to Japan to Russia follow similar visual standards. Why is it that even though it took America 20 years to follow in Germany’s car manufacturing footsteps (wheel tracks?) the US took on its own style and version of standardized road signage? Welcome to a quick history of why US signs look different from the rest of the world.
Though Germany’s Carl Benz invented the first car in 1888, it was America’s Henry Ford who focused on the mass production of vehicles, making Detroit, MI, the “Motor City.” Since the mass production of cars meant they were more accessible, roads were quickly built, making America the “car capital of the world.” These early roadsigns were decentralized, meaning individual cities and often private automobile clubs determined signage for a specific area.
Seeing the benefit of standardized signage, the American Association of State High Officials created the US Standard Road Markers and Signs Compendium in 1927. However, the National Conference of Street and Highway Safety made its own manual, The Manual on Street Traffic Signs 1930, creating a second signage “standard.” Since two different manuals on road signage don’t scream standardization, a joint committee was formed a year later, and in 1931, we have the MUTCD: the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices. This is the birth of many signs we still see today, from our octagonal-shaped stop signs to railroad crossings and one-way street signs.
Twenty years later, in 1951, after World War 2, the United Nations was formed and developed a globalized road signage standard. This would be image-based and should be able to convey messages to drivers relatively universally, so someone could travel to different countries without creating havoc because of a lack of understanding. Even though the end of WW2 created more aggression toward Europe, the UN experimented with seeing if these image-based signs could be successful in the US by placing them in various locations: OH 104, US Rte 250, VI 53, MN 101, and then several locations in NY. However, the experiment failed thanks to American exceptionalism and anti-European sentiment, new confusion over completely removing text signs for image signs, and plain old attachment to their previous signs.
The experiment wasn’t a total bust, though. The UN still created the Vienna Convention on Road Signs and Signals, leading to a 69-country universal road sign system. The US did not join, but they weren’t the only major country that refused; China, Canada, Australia, and Ethiopia also opted out of the Vienna Convention.
Additional reasons for the US’s refusal to sign bear mentioning: states currently determine their road and highway signage use. Had the US joined, this would mean that ALL states would be forced to follow rules imposed by the federal government, which not only rubbed individual states the wrong way but also led to some confusing issues around the legality of it and whether it was constitutional to do so. However, this doesn’t mean we don’t have any federally imposed road or highway rules. In 1966, the Highway Safety Act was formed. Instead of the option to comply being strictly based on choice, the federal government said that refusing to comply would result in states losing 10% of their federal highway funding. Furthermore, the US was working on creating the Interstate Highway System (IHS) that we are familiar with today, and signing the Vienna Convention would have required outside influence to form the IHS.
The MUTCD made another attempt to try out image-based signs in America in 1970, but instead of universal image-based signage resulting in increased safety, drivers were completely confused. Images they had never seen replaced plain text signage, which resulted in more chaos and less efficient roadways than prior. In 1978, the MUTCD quietly removed the language that image-based signs were preferred since its reasoning proved inconclusive for the US.
Next time you travel out of the country or meet a confused tourist, remember that we’re among the few not following a global standard. Though our reasons make sense for the time, these signs were implemented, and even though other countries may find their standard signage to be more understandable for them, our different signs are what work for us. If you need any help with your interstate or road signage, be sure to hit us up for your free estimate here: www.interstatesignways.com/freeestimate!