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Understanding Traffic Control Philosophy

December 12, 2019

One thing every city and town in America has in common is uniform traffic control devices. These devices, which include signs, pavement markings and electronic devices, are mandated by the Federal Highway Administration to comply with its Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD). Here’s a look at the philosophy behind these signs and devices that communicate with all drivers.

Fundamental Principles

The basic philosophy behind traffic control devices can be found in the MUTCD under “Fundamental Principles.” This section explains the core ideas behind sign placement and how signs communicate with drivers. The main goal of using signs or other devices is to reduce accidents and optimize smooth traffic flow. While traffic safety strategies are used to protect road workers, it’s also essential for these crews to operate in a way that doesn’t cause hazards for drivers or pedestrians.

Temporary Zones

There will always be times when temporary traffic procedures are needed, such as at accident scenes, road construction sites and when unsafe conditions arise. Sometimes electronic signs are needed and at other times flaggers are onsite to direct traffic. Many times an alternate route is planned when road work or safety tests are conducted that tie up normal traffic patterns. Motorists often become familiar with enforced traffic principles and procedures over time, although there isn’t much talk about it in the media otherwise.

Temporary traffic control procedures should still follow the basic principles of traffic safety described in the MUTCD. In other words, temporary traffic plans should still be similar to the goals of regular traffic plans in the sense that traffic should move easily through areas with geometrics, signs and devices. Geometrics refer to road shapes, sizes, curves and angles. This temporary plan should be presented to all responsible parties and road workers involved prior to when the time frame for maintenance begins.

Another viewpoint that temporary road crews should follow is that disrupting traffic should be minimalized as much as possible. That’s why a lot of road work is done late at night, to avoid interfering with regular traffic. Work sites should be designed with the assumption that drivers will slow down when they perceive a need to do so. Overall, a temporary plan should avoid abrupt changes such as lane narrowing.

Clear Guidance

All temporary controlled traffic areas should be continuously monitored to ensure they are functioning properly and can be perceived easily by drivers. In the event of an accident in a road work zone, engineers and law enforcement officials should conduct an analysis so that such accidents can be prevented in the future.

One of the most important guidelines for traffic officials to remember is that drivers and pedestrians should be given clear guidance when approaching a traffic control zone. This means people need sufficient warnings to slow down and drive carefully through these zones. Effective warnings include pavement markings, road signs and electronic devices. The only time flaggers should be used is when all other traffic control methods are considered inadequate for a particular scenario.

Road work zones are further maximized when a clear roadway area is provided in case emergency vehicles are needed. Only personnel with a clear understanding of MUTCD standards and regulations should have a supervisor position when traffic guidance is needed.


Traffic control zones are often needed to repair roads or create detours. Officials must follow basic traffic control philosophy to minimize traffic disruptions and ensure public safety for drivers and pedestrians. Contact Zumar at our Arizona, California or Washington locations to learn more about proper signage and other traffic control devices.

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