The Federal Highway Administration’s turnaround on the use of Clearview—the typeface designed to improve highway sign legibility, especially for aging drivers—has state highway officials, Clearview designers and researchers frustrated and wondering how to push back the clock.
Via the January 25, 2016, Federal Register, FHWA gave notice that it has 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. The Federal Register notice states, “Existing signs that use the provisional letter style and comply with the Interim Approval are unaffected by this action and may remain as long as they are in serviceable condition.”
The FHWA’s turnaround 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. 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.
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.”
FHWA says the decision does not affect existing signs or mandate removal of signs. But, notes Meeker, “The repercussions will be enormous for state engineering departments. The manuals that have been developed, the interface between cities, counties, toll roads and others under the jurisdiction of the DOTs have been established. Current and planned contracts and long-term capital plans are actively woven through engineering and maintenance management at each department.”
“Turning these policies around in a state DOT will cost millions,” he concludes.
Turning it around
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.”
Reversal of the approval means plenty of headaches for state highway officials, as well as lost investment. “First of all, we have numerous publications and standards that make reference to Clearview. We’d have to go back and edit all those publications and do extensive outreach to our fabricators, municipalities, contractors and anyone else who might be using Clearview to make sure they’re not continuing to use it.”
Also in question are the hundreds of ongoing and nascent highway projects that include signage and the use of Clearview. “They’ve only given us a 30-day window to discontinue Clearview, and that’s just impossible,” notes Alexander.
As a follow-up to the Federal Register notice, FHWA issued a memorandum to state highway officials on January 28 outlining details of the termination and providing guidance on current projects. The memo states that Clearview can be implemented in any ongoing project and on contracts that have already been signed. Projects in the design phase should be amended to include Highway Gothic, the memo states.
Alexander has been in touch with colleagues from other states and expects a group of state transportation officials will approach their professional organization, the American Association for State Highway & Transportation Officials, requesting AASHTO pass a resolution asking FHWA to form a task force to review highway fonts in general and Clearview in particular. PennDOT is also preparing a letter to its local FHWA division expressing their concern over the termination.
“I don’t believe the termination was justified,” says Alexander. “I don’t think they made an adequate case for it, at least in their notice.”
And, he noted, “We haven’t started any anything [termination procedures] because we want to see how other states are going to proceed. We don’t believe this was well-vetted.”
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.”
Domino effect: community wayfinding
FHWA’s reversal on Clearview also has potential domino effects on community wayfinding programs across the U.S. In its Jan. 28 memo, FHWA says “Community wayfinding signs …may continue to use a lettering style other than the Standard Alphabets as long as it provides at least equivalent legibility as provided in the referenced section of the MUTCD.”
John Bosio, whose firm MERJE has developed more than 75 community wayfinding programs, says gaining approvals for community programs may get more difficult as a result of FHWA’s decision.
“In 2004 with the Interim Approval of Clearview, our target slowed down considerably because we knew we had the testing to show Clearview improved legibility,” he notes. “Now, the target may have speeded back up.”
Going back to Highway Gothic would pose huge challenges, he says, because its wider letterforms take up more space and require larger sign panels, a problem in congested urban conditions.
Because the FHWA noted that community wayfinding may still use “alternate” fonts, Bosio says he’ll continue to use Clearview and present the previous research and additional specific testing completed for MERJE’s individual projects.
“We’ll make sure we bring it up early in the process with various DOT officials to make sure they’re okay with it. If they’re not, we’ll try to present the reports showing its effectiveness. We’ll run into a spectrum of state highway engineers. Some of them will approve it and others are much more conservative. So we could be going back to the same struggles we had before the approval in 2004.”
The end of the road?
Chris Calori, FSEGD, Calori & Vanden-Eynden / Design Consultants, finds the FHWA’s concluding paragraph the most discouraging. It states: “Based on these findings, FHWA does not intend to pursue further consideration, development, or support of an alternative letter style.”
“From the wording, it appears that the FHWA is shutting the door on any further R&D in this area,” she says. “After more than a decade of dogged research—research that has resulted in great improvements in how people use our federal highway system—they’re saying, ‘This is it, case closed, we’re not putting any more money into this.’”
“It’s a real defeat for design and design’s power to improve people’s lives.”
Martin Pietrucha, former director of the Thomas D. Larson Pennsylvania Transportation Institute at Pennsylvania State University and now director of the Penn State Engineering Systems Program, says it appears the FHWA wants to ensure consistency in the use of typefaces on highway signs—but that may come at the price of continuing improvements for drivers.
“We can all understand that consistency is a good thing, but decades of R&D have shown that we’ve made improvements in legibility and recognition in most situations, and that we can keep making improvements, even in negative-contrast applications,” he notes. The Larson Institute has collaborated with Meeker since 1990 and done the bulk of research supporting development of Clearview.
“It almost seems like there’s sort of a desire to neaten things up, not to have things so messy,” he adds. “For me, the bottom line is that there’s a lot about fonts and type dynamics related to users that we don’t fully understand just yet. We’ve seen there are ways for us to make improvements—sometimes substantial improvements—based on font. With this, FHWA is saying, ‘We’re going to ignore that, we’re not doing any more developmental work and we’re going to close the case.”
“The jury is still out on whether Clearview is a slam dunk for every situation, but it does very well in most situations. So why wouldn’t you use the better tool whenever and wherever you can?”
SEGD CEO Clive Roux called the FHWA's decision "confusing and disappointing."
"It seems really strange that the decision has gone against a clearly researched improvement in legibility that has been more than two decades in testing," he notes. SEGD President John Lutz (Selbert Perkins Design), said "Design aesthetic is one thing, and Clearview is clearly a better designed font than Highway Gothic, but the fact that it clearly aids in public safety is even more important, as any improvement in legibility would be an improvement in safety for drivers."
Both Roux and Lutz stressed that SEGD will be at the forefront of challenging the FHWA’s decision, along with the states through AASHTO, working as always to improved legibility and public safety on our roads.
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