FHWA Stands by Clearview Decision for Highway Signs, but Clarifies its Use for Community Wayfinding

Clearview in Pennsylvania

While state highway engineers are rushing to put the brakes on use of Clearview on federal highway guide signs, the Federal Highway Administration says its decision to withdraw conditional approval of the typeface was about licensing fees as well as safety. It also clarified that Clearview is still an acceptable alternative for community wayfinding programs.

“No, we are not reconsidering a decision that has been more than 10 years in the making,” says Doug Hecox, spokesperson for FHWA. “The approval provided for Clearview was always conditional; it was always temporary, to help us determine if there was another typeface that was better than what we had.”

He continued. “What we revealed in 12 years of testing at the Texas Transportation Institute at Texas A&M University was that the original claims that were made in the early 2000’s that Clearview was a superior font were not true. What  we found was that it was not better [than the FHWA’s Standard Alphabet fonts], and in some cases it was worse.”

Hecox noted that licensing fees charged states for digitized versions of the Clearview typeface were also a consideration in the decision.

“At the same time, when the creator of Clearview was asking states to pay licensing fees, that made it less attractive,” he says. “When states are asked to pay for something that should be free, they come to us worrying that it’s a federal mandate. We thought that was confusing. Withdrawing the conditional approval helped to resolve those issues as well.”

“We knew that states were wondering if this [Clearview] was supposed to be the new right thing and we realized it was too confusing for state leaders. Having the competing fonts out there—plus one that costs them—seemed to be more complicated than warranted. So there was a variety of things, but safety was at the top of the list. “

“We want to make sure state leaders know that sign fonts should be free and in the public domain they way they have been for decades.”

A surprising turnaround

The FHWA’s turnaround—which came via the January 25, 2016, Federal Register--comes after more than two decades of user-based research and development on Clearview and after close to 20 states have adopted Clearview for new highway signage.

Clearview was developed by Donald Meeker, FSEGD, Meeker & Associates, Chris O’Hara, Meeker & Associates, and James Montalbano, Terminal Design, and evolved over 24 years of user research studies.

FHWA terminated its “Interim Approval for Use of Clearview Font for Positive Contrast Legends on Guide Signs (IA–5),” issued September 2, 2004, as authorized by Section 1A.10 of the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices. The FHWA’s notice “discontinues the provisional use of an alternative lettering style in traffic control device applications.”

The termination rescinds the use of letter styles other than the FHWA Standard Alphabets (also called Highway Gothic) on traffic control devices, except as provided otherwise in the MUTCD.

Meeker says FHWA’s decision “turns the clock back to Eisenhower administration-era signage in all the states that have adopted Clearview and are thrilled to use it.”

In a decades-long effort that many have lauded as "design activism," Meeker, O’Hara and Montalbano developed the Clearview letterforms specifically to counter poor road conditions and help aging drivers. Through exhaustive iterations and numerous user-based research studies, they eliminated “light traps” in the letterforms and streamlined their ligatures to mitigate nighttime halo effects caused by the use of retroreflective sheeting on signs. They also increased the negative spaces in letters such as “a” and “e” that tend to close in from a distance. And the improvements were made meticulously, without the need to increase font sizes or ultimately, sign profiles.

On the Clearview side

Clearview’s developers, other researchers who have focused on it for more than two decades and highway departments in more than 20 states strongly disagree. And they say FHWA’s case against it is weak.

Mark Alexander, PE, Civil Engineer Consultant with the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Maintenance and Operations, says he’s frustrated and surprised the FHWA would reverse its position on Clearview “without consulting with its partners—the states that have invested in implementing Clearview on highway guide signs for the past 12 years.”

This week, he said his department has been rushing to comply with the decision, while at the same time entering discussions with FHWA about the issue.

“Pennsylvania has moved to comply with the 30-day FHWA mandate to convert to Highway Gothic and issued directives both internally to our Engineering Districts and externally to contractors, signs fabricators and municipalities to cease the use of Clearview,” he says.

“We are in discussions, however, with FHWA in D.C. about reconsidering their position on the future of Clearview.”

He told SEGD, “I don’t believe the termination was justified. I don’t think they made an adequate case for it, at least in their notice.” 

In its Federal Register notice, FHWA stipulated two issues with Clearview. First, it says, while the interim approval allowed “provisional” use of one series of Clearview in positive-contrast color orientations, the approval was written in such a way as to allow narrower letterforms that “degrade” legibility when compared with FHWA Standard Alphabet series. In addition, it says tests of alternative lettering in negative-contrast color orientations showed no improvement and degraded sign legibility.

“Ultimately, the consistent finding among all the research evaluations is that the brightness of the retroreflective sheeting is the primary factor in nighttime legibility,” reads the notice.

The Federal Register notice goes on to say that use of two different lettering styles on U.S. highways is confusing and suggests that in spite of the “explicit” nature of the interim approval of Clearview, “misunderstandings and misapplications” have resulted, in particular inconsistencies in sign production methods that impact legibility. 

Meeker, some states that have adopted Clearview and researchers take issue with this point. In a detailed rebuttal that will be sent to FHWA, Meeker notes that preliminary research (1992-1995) supported two weights of the first generation of the Clearview font designs. This included an alternative to FHWA E-Modified and an alternative to all upper case Series D with two “first generation” designs of mixed-case road sign typefaces. The results of numerous studies (day/night, older/younger subjects, test track) showed statistically significant improvement in both legibility (from 7.7% to 21.7% depending on study) and recognition (11.8% to 17.8% depending on study) using Clearview fonts. The most important finding of this first study using the earliest version of Clearview was that a mixed-case word was more accurately read by younger and older drivers even though the footprint (degree that subtended a lesser degree of arc to the retina) was smaller. “This was very informing to the process and has only gotten better as the typeface design has been refined,” explains Meeker. “From that first study, the design went through many refinements and rebuilds based on both research and field study.”

The FHWA notice went on to say, “… subsequent evaluations showed no benefit to the narrower letter forms and degraded sign legibility when compared to the corresponding FHWA Standard Alphabet series. Additionally, tests of alternative lettering in negative contrast color orientations (dark legend on lighter background, such as for regulatory and warning signs) showed no improvement and significantly degraded legibility of the sign.”

Meeker noted that the FHWA’s research citations in the Federal Register notice are for all upper-case studies. “The differences from one upper case display to another will be indiscernible if the stroke width and character width are similar,” he says. “The negative contrast study [cited by FHWA] compared upper case Standard Alphabets Series D to mixed case and was commendable but was only a beginning in a conversation related to optimizing legends for regulatory and warning signs. A reduced size mixed case legend may be more effective than a one-for-one exchange.”

Meeker says a new legibility study presented at the annual meeting of the Transportation Research Board in January 2016 compared FHWA Series C, D and E with Clearview 2-B, 3-B and 4-B in negative-contrast situations. “Results showed Clearview outperformed the comparable Standard Alphabets by as much as 21%, 30% and 31% respectively,” he notes. “In a positive contrast study that compared FHWA Series C, D and E to Clearview 2-W, 3-W and 4-W, Clearview out-performed Standard Alphabets by as much as 35%, 29% and 18% respectively.” He notes the test compared day/night driving conditions and various demographics (older/middle age/younger drivers) in a test-track environment.

“This was a pure legibility study, and when all uppercase Standard Alphabets were compared to similar weight Clearview in mixed case, the results were basically the same,” Meeker notes. “The all upper case had a bigger footprint, however. Current research that will compare readability, understanding and recognition between the two with words and phrases should show a solid improvement with Clearview if prior studies are an indication.”

Multiple user studies have shown that in positive-contrast applications (lighter text on darker background), Clearview improves legibility and recognition on highway signs for a wide range of driver demographics and driving conditions. More recent research has also shown improvements over the federal standard in negative-contrast (darker text on lighter background) situations as well.

Pushing back

While Alexander says his department is in dialogue with FHWA about reconsidering its stance, at least two other states—including Texas and Ohio—have written to FHWA seeking clarification and asking for reconsideration.

In a February 22, 2016, letter to FHWA, William (Bill) Hale, Chief Engineer for the Texas Department of Transportation, says the research FHWA cited in its Federal Register notice was inaccurately represented.

“The studies that FHWA referenced were limited in scope and do not represent a full evaluation of the narrower Clearview fonts for positive-contrast signs....In this case, the referenced research is overgeneralized while other research supporting Clearview is not mentioned.”

Hale concluded his letter by “respectfully disagreeing” with FHWA and requesting that his department be allowed to continue using Clearview 5W and 5WR as an alternative font for positive-contrast legends on guide signs due to its significant increases in legibility distances, improved legibility for aging drivers, reduced halation of highway sign legends with retroreflective sheeting, containment of sign fabrication costs by not increasing overall sign and support size and finally, the lack of safety issues related to Clearview since it was adopted in 2003.

He recommended FHWA rescind its “abrupt termination” of Clearview and develop a task force to investigate its concerns.

Community wayfinding

FHWA also clarified that Clearview is an approved alternative to Highway Gothic for community wayfinding programs, says Hecox.

“When traveling on the interstate, you only have few seconds [to make decisions], so the legibility [of signs]—work that the average Joe doesn’t appreciate has taken years and years of study to arrive at—is key when you’re driving at speeds of 75 and 80 mph. In lower-speed setting, sight lines are different, distances between the driver and signs are different, and legibility is not the issue that it is on the interstate.“

The licensing issue

Chris Calori, FSEGD, Calori & Vanden-Eynden / Design Consultants, noted in a February interview that she suspected the licensing issue may have played a part in the FHWA’s decision. Hecox confirmed today that FHWA fears its causes “confusion” and may lead states to wonder why the federal government would approve a font that needed to be purchased rather than be available in the public domain. Montalbano retained the rights to license states for the digitized versions of the Clearview fonts.

“Here we have Don Meeker and Chris O’Hara and James Montalbano and others who went through all of this effort and—using solid principles of design and research—honestly tried to improve something that impacts users so significantly. I think if you read between the lines this is about the idea of buying the font.”

“Nobody complains about the sign materials they have to buy or the machines they need to shear metal or the raw materials like paint and aluminum and reflective sheeting. But when it comes to intellectual property—design—they balk. “

“They think design should be free.”

* * * *

In spite of pushback from some states, the FHWA has no plans to reconsider the Clearview decision, Hecox says.

“We have no plans to reconsider the issue. Not at this time. It’s an interesting little issue and I can see how people in your community would want to know what’s going on.”


More recent press on Clearview

NYTimes Op-Ed piece


Wired magazine March 7, 2016


Older stories

From the U.S. Department of Transportation’s website




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