Future of Clearview with FHWA Still Murky

Looking Back: March 2016

At last we left the Clearview debate, it was March 2016 and the Federal Highway Administration had rescinded their 2004-dated conditional approval of the typeface on January 26, 2016, citing safety concerns and higher licensing fees.

The FHWA notification document references only three studies, while there exist over a dozen, the majority of which show significant improvement with Clearview over FHWA Standard Alphabets. The document clarifies that Clearview is still an acceptable alternative for community wayfinding purposes. It also states that existing signs may stay in place as long as they are in serviceable condition.

The FHWA spokesperson pointed to research from the Texas Transportation Institute at Texas A&M University, including a 2006 study entitled “Evaluation of the Clearview Font for Negative Contrast Traffic Signs”, with a recommendation to discontinue that specific use, which curiously wasn't part of the original interim approval that was for positive contrast signs only. 

The Clearview system 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.

Nearly 20 state highway departments had already adopted Clearview for their new highway signage and additional states were in disagreement with the decision. Members of the graphic design community also have strong feelings about the abrupt termination of the use of Clearview, agreeing that the justification offered by the FHWA is weak and raising questions about intellectual property and the administration’s willingness to pay for use of the font.

The Clearview font artwork and full rights were provided to the FHWA as part of the interim approval. Both Highway Gothic and Clearview require at least one license per state; as Meeker points out, "No one is getting rich off of this." In fact, there are knock-offs of both fonts. 

Update: March 2016 Through February 2017

Since the Federal Register announcement in late January 2016, a team led by Meeker, O’Hara and Montalbano began an arduous 11-month process of gathering information to combat the FHWA decision. Their first action after preparing a history of Clearview entitled “Improvements in Surface Transportation Signing” was to sort through the claims made in the FHWA Notice to the “Federal Register and Technical Brief” that rescinded the interim approval (IA-5) for use of the Clearview type system, and notate where they felt the document was incomplete or misrepresenting the issue. 

The next document the team prepared (with the assistance of research professionals), was for a June 2016 American Association of Highway and Transportation Officials Sub-Committee on Traffic Engineering meeting. The document’s express purpose was to identify the claim made by the FHWA and present its counter argument.

Meerker remarks, “At the June 2016 AASHTO-SCOTE meeting, there was a full 50-state condemnation of the FHWA decision, which was affirmed in November 2016, when the AASHTO Board of Directors voted to have the FHWA rescind the rescission.”  In December, the FHWA opened the action to public comment through January 27, 2017.  In mid-January 2017, a team from MIT presented another peer-reviewed piece of research highlighting the advantages of Clearview over Highway Gothic.

The Western Michigan University Study

The biggest revelation of recent research for Meeker is a report published September 30, 2015 by the Transportation Research Center for Livable Communities at Western Michigan University, which used all real vehicle crash data, entitled “Evaluation of Michigan’s Engineering Improvements for Older Drivers”. Older drivers are important to the Clearview mission because over the years, the research has shown that its implementation benefits an older population most—something which is increasingly relevant as the baby-boomers continue to age.

Among the vital conclusions drawn by the WMU researchers, was that while positive contrast (white on green) Clearview typefaces used for guide sign legends and Flourescent Yellow Sheeting backgrounds (used for all exit lane and single lane drop panels) both individually decreased vehicle crashes on freeways as well as urban and rural non-freeways, they were even more effective when installed in tandem.

Focusing solely on Clearview; the report concludes with a benefit-cost analysis, which places the benefit-cost ratio from 1,091:1 on rural non-freeways to 7,456:1 on urban non-freeways and to 2,716:1 on freeways. The additional cost of Clearview over Highway Gothic per sign is currently $41.

The benefit-cost ratios, however, seem insignificant when compared with the crash statistics. When Clearview is implemented on non-freeway roads, the research shows a 14% reduction in fatal crashes and when combined with Florescent Yellow Sheeting the reduction is 16%. With both safety measures in place, the study shows a 30% reduction in all nighttime accidents and 25% decrease in all daytime accidents. 

Where to Go Next

The FHWA response to the public comment period has not yet been released.

Meeker is hopeful that the recent pushback from state highway engineers will have a positive impact, because, “As a graphic designer I’m just a guy with a drawing board, an outsider. I’m not the FHWA’s customer—the state traffic engineers are the only people that the government will listen to. Incredible as it may seem, not one of the state highway engineers who invested tens of millions in upgrading their start roads was consulted before rescinding Clearview use.”

In the event that the FHWA does not reconsider its rescission, some of the Meeker team’s long-term goals for Clearview will be significantly impacted, as his primary interest is in urban signing and the resulting frequently dysfunctional sign clutter that is common to most city streets. “Regulatory and warning (signing) have been our long-time interest, because it will remove an incredible amount of clutter and improve the readability of cities enormously,” says Meeker, "Much of that will begin to incorporate mixed case and more systematic formats and layouts designed for glance reading."

 

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Further Reading

NY Times: Easy-Reading Road Signs Head to the Offramp 

Wired: America’s Highway Fonts Got More Drama Than TheBachelor 

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

Atlantic’s City Lab: America's Sudden U-Turn on HighwayFonts 

Quartz: The US Government’s Decision to Scrub Clearview Font from Highway Signs Really Frustrated its Designers 

The Verge: The Feds are Killing Off Clearview, the New Highway Sign Font 

MUTCD: Interim Approval for Use of Clearview Font for Positive Contrast Legends onGuide Signs (IA-5)—TERMINATION 

 

 

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