Boxes: Why They Make Road Names Harder To Read on Freeway Signs
With the implementation of the 1983 State MUTCD, NYSDOT began allowing the use of "boxed" road and street names on freeway/expressway guide signage. The purpose of this method of road name legend was to allow the driver to better differentiate a street or road name from the destination on a sign, serving the same purpose as touring route shields. This type of legend is not required, but it is allowed; its use being at the discretion of the engineer designing the sign.
Prior to the release of the 1983 State MUTCD, some regions denoted road and street names by simply using all-capital letters in FHWA Series D alphabet. This is illustrated in this Region 7 overhead sign bridge near Plattsburgh:
I first became aware of the newer "street sign" style of legend after a sign rehabilitation project in Jefferson County in 1986, when the new signs for Exit 52 were installed, including the legend for "Island Rd". While quite unique in appearance and doing a great job of differentiating the difference between "Island Rd" and the destination "De Wolf Pt", I couldn't help but notice that from afar, it was much easier to read the destination and exit number than it was to read the street name. The box around the street name was obscuring my ability to recognize the legend by letter recognition. At night it was even more difficult because all I could see was an illuminated "blob" while I could start to make out "De Wolf Pt".
I didn't think much of this new method of signing street names for quite a while as it didn't appear in other areas of the state that I traveled. I figured an engineer somewhere was trying something new and then realized that legibility was compromised with the box around the road name so the practice wasn't pursued. Then around 2000, new signs were installed in Region 3 at I-81 Exits 23 and 24. For those unfamiliar with the area, this is the convergence of several local streets and roadways. Several street, road and parkway names are displayed on guide signs, and all the new signs had them displayed in this manner. With button-copy abandoned years ago, the reflective legend on the overhead signs made it even harder to read the road name legend than what I saw back in 1986 up in the 1000 Islands.
Apparently, an engineer in Region 2 (Utica) saw the engineer in Region 3 (Syracuse) implementing this allowance from the NYSDOT MUTCD and followed suit on sign rehab projects in the Utica-Rome area and the Mohawk Valley. Unfortunately, the manufacturing practices vary from contractor to contractor, so the display of these boxed road names vary wildly. Some signs have the box the same width as the letters inside them, some signs have the box close to the letters, others have green space between the lettering and the box. Some methods are easier to read than others. All methods are nowhere near as easy to read as signs that use mixed-case FHWA Series E Modified lettering, the traditional alphabet used on freeway and expressway guide signs.
Here's a comparison of the two methods. The first sign is a sign installed in spring 2006. The second is my mock up of how the sign should look if I were to design it; to differentiate the road name legend from the destination and to maintain retrofitting capabilities, I've decreased the letter size by approximately 7% but I've used the same lettering. Please note that "Holland Patent" and "EXIT 1 MILE" are untouched in the second photo, they are positioned exactly where they were in the first photo.
I've sent NYSDOT numerous e-mails and suggestions regarding the concerns I have with motorist comprehension of the legend inside the road name boxes. Region 3 no longer employs this method of signing. Regions 2 and 8 continue to do so. I don't recall seeing these types of signs elsewhere in the state, however, Region 5 does use all capital letters from time to time.
Numerous studies conducted by various organizations have concluded that people recognize words by word shape as opposed to individual letters. It is easier for drivers to comprehend sign messages when they are in mixed case lettering and not obscured by unnecessary borders. This is a major point in the development of the new Clearview alphabet. New York is the only state out of the 42 states I've traveled in to utilize this signing method.
With New York State adopting the National MUTCD in 2007, I'm hoping this signing method will go away and the signs will eventually be replaced by more conventional legend.
I certainly welcome any comments on the subject.
Update 8/24/2006: NYSDOT has confirmed that this signing method will "disappear" with the implementation of the National MUTCD on September 13, 2007. Existing signs will be corrected to remove this type of sign legend.