Why most road signs are no longer in capitals


A descent on I-95 is full of dozens, possibly hundreds, of small design decisions that ultimately concern the driver’s attention. From the lettering of a road sign to the shape of a road, engineers are constantly trying to strike a balance between attracting the driver’s attention and distracting them.

As part of our End of the Road series, we wanted to interview an expert on the thinking behind some of the things drivers see on I-95 everyday but aren’t supposed to pay much attention.

Gene Hawkins is a professor at Texas A&M University and a leading authority on why freeways look the way they are. He spoke to WLRN-Miami Herald News to talk about freeway lettering, how boring the end of I-95 is, and why a straight freeway is a dangerous freeway.

A lot of the things we drive on the freeway are just words and numbers: speed limits and warnings and exit names. And there’s actually a lot of thought behind how these words look, even the mix of upper and lower case letters.

It’s exactly that. When a word is spelled out with all capital letters, it’s just a large rectangle at a long distance. The signature book that existed – and still exists today – is called the Uniform Traffic Control Devices Manual, the MUTCD. And the signs that appeared in the 1948 MUTCD used all capital letters. And when they started researching highway signage, they realized that drivers had to be able to see these signs from a distance. So not only do we want to make them bigger, but we also want to use patterns so that drivers can start to recognize the shape of a word.

Credit Google Maps

Road signs have changed from all caps to mixed case to help drivers recognize word patterns before they can actually read the word.

So let’s say I’m driving north on I-95, about 65 miles per hour, and I know I’m looking for Hollywood Blvd. What am I really looking for?

So you know from a distance there is going to be a bump at the beginning, there is going to be a smaller bump where the two ls are and then the y is going to go down below the base. And you can research this pattern before you can actually read the word itself or the letters of the word.

In addition to being an expert in signage, you are also a civil engineer and a student in the history of highways and highways. And you already mentioned that, from an engineering point of view, the most obvious way to build a highway between two points is in a straight line. But I guess history has taught us that it’s a little more complicated than doing that.

Okay, engineers like straight lines because they’re neat and tidy. And they thought that by building a straight highway, it would be a safe highway. But when they built these roads which were as straight as an arrow, they found that people were driving long distances on the freeway, if it was a perfectly straight road, this phenomenon of road hypnosis started to appear. It turned out that there wasn’t enough of a challenge driving to keep their attention. They would eventually fall asleep, get off the side of the road, and be in an accident. So we tend not to set up perfectly straight highways and roads.


Credit Kenny Malone

A very boring end to a very long and important highway.

Now one of the things we talked about as we focused on our little 87 mile stretch of the 2,000 mile I-95 is that the end of this particular road looks really drab in a way that people might not expect. . You drive south. Suddenly the road throws you on US1. And if you’re not looking for it, you might miss it altogether, but there’s a sign – just a green sign with an I-95 patch and the word “ENDS” underneath. And that’s all.

Well you know the idea is to keep the traffic going and you don’t want people stopping by the side of the road and taking pictures and you don’t want things to happen that might interrupt the traffic . Or at least engineers don’t.

Gene Hawkins is professor of civil engineering at Texas A&M University. He is one of the main authorities on the evolution of signage and the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices.

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