TC Network Episode 120, August 2021 Transcript

This a transcript of TC Network episode 120.

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Dr. Gene Hawkins of Texas A&M University.

It’s nice to have a broad perspective on a lot of different issues, because in the end, they all work together as a single system.

The mutcd exists to make sure that traffic control devices will mean the same and look the same regardless of where they’re used. That allows road users to respond to them in a reasonable predictable manner.

Welcome to the TraffiCalm Network. I’m your host, Bob Felt. Our program is about driving conversations, keeping traffic calm, and saving lives. You will like our next guest and what he has to say. It’s Dr. Gene Hawkins. He’s a professor in the Zachery Department of Civil Engineering at Texas A&M University, where he teaches transportation engineering courses to undergrads and graduates, those are civil engineering students, conducting research in the transportation operations area. He participates in numerous professional organizations. He also holds a joint appointment as a research engineer with the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, or TTI, and has served as the division head of the Transportation Materials Division within the department.

He has three degrees from Texas A&M University. Dr. Hawkins is a registered professional engineer in Texas. Before joining Texas A&M faculty in 2004, he worked at TTI for 18 years. Prior to that, he was in the private sector, in consulting firms in both Bryan and Houston.

He currently also provides consulting and expert witness services outside through his own consulting firm. And his primary fields of interest are traffic control systems. We really want to hear what he has to say about that and traffic control standards, driver response to traffic control devices, retro reflectivity and visibility. He’s a member of numerous professional and technical organizations, like I refer to, like and NCTUCD, where he serves as the chair. We’re going to hear more about that TRB and it’s to name a few.

Please join us in welcoming Dr. Jean Hawkins. Hello, sir.

Hey, how are you doing today, Bob?

I’m really well.

We really appreciate your time. But, you know, I failed to mention that your background as a principal investigator includes a lot of different projects from peer reviewed journal papers to technical reports. Can you just touch some of those topics?

Sure I’d be happy to do that over the 30 plus years of doing research. Actually, thirty-five years, I guess, at this point. I have done a lot of research studies, as you mentioned, most of them have dealt with some aspects of traffic control devices. For a while it seemed like all the research I was doing was related to retro reflectivity of signs and markings. But, I’ve done work on many different other aspects of traffic control devices. It’s nice to have a broad perspective on a lot of different issues, because in the end, they all work together as a single system.

Well, again, it’s great to have you on. And I’m going to jump right into what some would call a basic question. MUTCD, what is it? And is it really necessary?

I well know being a professor, I can talk at length, but I’ll try and keep this to a reasonable amount of time. MUTCD for manual on uniform traffic control devices. Some people actually try and pronounce this acronym and call it the MUTCD or any other things. No one that that uses it on a regular basis actually pronounces MUTCD as a word. They just call out the individual letters. What it is, is the national standard for all traffic control devices used on public roads and on privately owned roads, open to public travel.

And what that means is that the MUTCD exist to make sure that traffic control devices used in two different parts of the country will mean the same and will look the same regardless of where they’re used. And that the manner in which they’re used, where they’re put and so forth are consistent. And that allows road users to respond to them in a reasonably predictable manner when they encounter them, regardless of where they are. When someone from Texas where I live drives off to another part of the country.

They don’t want to be confused by a green stop sign. So, the MUTCD specifies that a stop sign is going to be white letters on a red background on an octagon, and it’s going to be on the right side of the road where it’s placed and so forth.

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Well, how does the federal highway, if at all, play into the manual on uniform traffic control devices?

Well, the MUTCD is actually a document that is owned and administered by the Federal Highway Administration. And so FHWA is the group or organization that actually determines what goes into the MUTCD. And as a federal regulation, and it’s defined in the code of federal regulations as such, that means that the only way to change it is through the rulemaking process. And so if there’s something in the MUTCD that you want to see added or taken out or changed somewhat from what’s in there right now, the only way that can happen is for the federal government to initiate the proposed rulemaking effort where they say what they want to change. The public has an opportunity to comment on it, and then they have to review all those comments, revise it as appropriate, and then they can publish the final rules. So it’s not a document that’s easy to change.

Well, that’s fair. Now, in a prior interview, we spoke with Dr Paul Carlson. I know you know him well, but we need to make sure for some that that might hear me differently. We were just talking about the M, as in Mary UTCD. But there’s another acronym that’s very close. And I’d like to talk a little bit about N as in Nancy CUTCD, because in the introduction, Dr. Hawkins’, I mentioned that you’re the chair of the National Committee. So talk a little bit about that. What’s involved in terms of the membership, how it interfaces or interacts with those at that federal level? And why is it even important to sit around and talk about it?

Well, that’s a very good question, Bob. So National Committee on Uniform Traffic Control Devices November Charlie is an organization that was created in 1980, although its roots go back to 1932. And we’re a private organization. Our sole purpose is to provide and develop recommended changes to the MUTCD and related activities to traffic control devices. So what our organization does is we meet twice a year, now because of the pandemic, we have been meeting virtually, but we’re anticipating going back to our traditional face to face meeting in January and June of next year. During those meetings, which typically last about three days, is the typical meeting length. We develop content. Primarily during the face to face meetings, we’re debating and discussing the issues and in taking votes. There’s a lot of work that goes on behind the scenes between the meetings as well.

Once our council, which is our policymaking body, approves an item and that takes a two thirds vote. Then we send it to FHWA. and say, here’s a recommended change to the MUTCD. We hope you will consider including it in a future rulemaking effort.

We don’t get to decide what actually goes into the MUTCD, but we like to think that our broad representation of many different sectors of the transportation system in the many years of experience of our members allows us to develop recommendations that, as I like to say, have been put through the wringer.

And they’ve they really had a lot of input from our members and our sponsoring organizations before they’re approved by council and sent to the FHWA for consideration.

So you just led me to another question. You have members and sponsoring organizations. Let’s take the sponsoring organizations piece of that and tell me just approximately how many are there. And this is throughout the United States.

All right. So the National Committee has twenty one sponsoring organizations. If you’re interested, you can go to our website, and on the about Pull-down menu there’ll be a list of our sponsoring organizations, including a link to the homepage for each of those organizations. These sponsoring organizations are divided into four different groups. And this is probably a little bit too much detail. So I’ll just do it briefly. But one group is a public agency. One group is national organizations. The third group is user groups. The fourth group is the industry. The group one members, which are the public agencies. They typically have more than one delegate on council. And that’s how we get forty one voting members on our council out of our twenty one sponsoring organizations.

Whenever we have a draft of a recommendation that we want the council to vote on during the period between meetings, we send that to our sponsoring organizations, and they share with their members in whatever manner they think is appropriate for review and comment. All of those comments go back to the group that developed the original language, and they’ll consider those comments and make changes as appropriate before the revised version is presented to council for a vote.

So, all of this work is necessary. It is important. And it’s something that I really don’t think the Federal Highway Administration could go without, because we’re talking about experts from across the country, like I said. Right.

Truly, we’ve got some of the preeminent individuals in their respective fields, whether it be within industry, within public agency research. You mentioned Paul Carlson a moment ago. Paul is a colleague of mine for many years. We mentioned retro reflectivity research earlier. Paul and I did a lot of that together. A number of individuals such as Paul and others, or highly respected within the profession and contribute a great deal to the National Committee effort and the development of recommendations.

We’re speaking with Dr. Gene Hawkins, chair of the NCTUCD. Now, you mentioned Paul Carlson. When we talked with him, he never mentioned you.

There wasn’t the same value in mentioning my name is there and using his limited amount of time to share the knowledge and expertise that he has.

That’s true. We appreciate both of you and all the folks that we referenced that are part of this process. So I want to know if you could share anything about the status. And people have talked about this, the new manual, or the updated version in terms of where we’re at. I thought I remember 2020 or 21 or 22. Do we have any idea from where you sit?

You’re talking about when we’ll see a final rule? Yes. Thank you. Yeah. The next piece. Well. Let me answer your question this way, because a moment ago you were asking me about the sponsoring organizations and you mentioned the members and the amount of time they put in.

This is a good opportunity for me to provide some insight on the National Committee’s activities over this past spring. So in mid-December of 2020, FHWA published a notice of proposed amendments to the MUTCD. So that’s the draft version of the MUTCD.

And we had five months to develop and submit our comments. And, so, between mid-December and mid-May, our members, including council, the technical committee members, the task force members put in, by my estimate, about 12000 person hours of time in developing our comments.

Well, and depends on what you want to use as an hourly rate, but that’s easily two million dollars or more in labor cost. And so it was a pretty significant effort during the last week of the comment period.

The number of comments on the docket absolutely exploded. Now, the National Committee submitted 85 individual submissions and each submission represented our comments on a single chapter. It’s got to be is a regulatory sign chapter. There’s multiple chapters in each of the parts of the manual. In fact, as I recall, part four I think had the most it went all the way up to you, eight through you. Something like 22, 23 chapters. Anyway, so the National Committee submitted 85 different Dockett comments, one for each of the 85 chapters. And we were part of that explosion of comments during the last week. Once the docket closed, the count was somewhere north of 25000 individual submissions to the docket. Now, a lot of those submissions came from individuals. Mm hmm.

And there were some organizations that encouraged groups and their members to submit individual comments. Some of them even provided a template to use and submitting comments if the FHWA is best able to evaluate the proposed draft when they get feedback on it. Now, they have a large number of comments to deal with. And so I expect that processing of those comments to take several months. What I don’t, this is a personal opinion, I do not expect a final rule during 2021. I’m hopeful we’ll see it in 2022. And we’ll just have to wait and see when it comes out.

Well, I appreciate that, I think a lot of people are hoping for the best, but let’s talk a little bit about the best. And what I mean by that is and we also say the term National Committee for NCUTCD

Right. I can say that National Committee, or I say it’s NUTCD

OK, can you share just something off the top of your head? And maybe it relates to PED’s and bikes, where the National Committee groups, the sponsoring organizations, the members, you know, they talk through things and then I’ll be darned if something positive didn’t come out of that.

And we really do have a good chance at getting something within the next version of the manual. I’d like to think that all of the recommendations that we send off to [the] FHWA are good ones and have value. I think the fact that many of our recommendations that we made between 2009 and 2000 and roughly 2019, maybe early 2020, actually made it into the proposed draft. And I think that’s a testament to what I call the ringer of our process, where, you know, something doesn’t go through if it doesn’t have pretty broad support and it won’t get approved, if there’s not a strong sense that it will actually work in practice.

A lot of that work and those approved recommendations come about because of our members in our technical committees. We have seven technical committees. Regulatory and warning signs is one guide. Most information is another, marking signals temporary traffic control, railroad light rail grade crossings, and then bicycle group is a good example to use for this, to answer your question. They are one of well, all of our committees are active, but the bicycle group is especially active because it truly has a diverse membership as far as the different perspectives represented in that meeting. And they brought an awful lot to the table that our advancements for the use of traffic control related to bicycle facilities, for example. One of the key areas where I think a lot of work has been done is the bicycle signals. We provided input or the draft of the approval when FHWA was developing it. That group developed the [redacted] language for the two states, turn cueing box for different concepts on float bike lanes and buffer [zone], bike lanes and bicycle boxes and a number of other things. So it’s a good opportunity here for me to mention that it’s one thing to have an idea or a concept for a traffic control device or traffic control concept that you think is going to work.

But it’s a real challenge to take a physical device and then develop the wording for a national standard that will allow that device to go into practice and give practitioners enough information to use it effectively, but not have the language so restrictive that it won’t work in some situations. Writing in Metzker languages is a real skill, and it takes a lot of experience to learn how to do that.

Well, I’ve been thinking as I’m listening, I’m practicing my listening skills, but I’m also thinking as we talk about what we’d like to have as standards and we come up with these new ideas. Haven’t you seen some non-compliant stuff that it says clearly in the manual on uniform traffic control devices, that’s not allowed. I know you’ve traveled the country, Dr. Hawkins, but what have you seen out there that just is not really a good thing?

Oh, that’s an interesting question. So you mentioned during my introduction that I’m a civil engineering professor. One of the, I call them, rules that I like to teach my students is that as a civil engineer, you can have the most advanced and complicated design that can possibly be developed, but just keep in mind that the person who’s going to put that concept into the field is someone who may only have a high school education and the MUTCD is not an easy document to read. I mean, how you can read the words, but reading the words doesn’t always bring about full understanding.

It is written for individuals that have some technical knowledge and expertise. It is intended for practitioners to use. And oftentimes what I’ve learned in my experience is where you see non-compliant devices, [it] is because someone either wasn’t aware of the MUTCD, which, believe it or not, actually happens.

Mm hmm. Or. Well, they’re aware that it exists, but they never look at it or use it before putting things out. And so a lot of the situations where I see non-compliant devices are a lot of them are in work zones where you have contractor personnel just using what they’ve got. And I’ve actually stopped and talked to them every now and then saying, do you realize that doesn’t comply with the MUTCD? And they go, what’s that? So the old guy out there doesn’t know about it through the administrator back in the office. The field guy probably doesn’t [know] it? And I’ve heard of situations where architects. I mean, I don’t know whether this story is true, but it makes for a good story. So I’ll tell it. OK. Architect who ended up having responsibility for doing the site design for a building, it was an apartment complex and a lot of landscaping and some traffic circles and other stuff and. There was one point where the road, the site roadway came up. And there was a landscaping area on the right, and the architect had put a lot of effort in making that landscaping really beautiful. They didn’t want to put in a red stop sign because that red stop sign, that red would conflict with all the greenery. So they specified a green stop sign. So it would match with the landscaping, the color of the landscaping.

Really? And I’ve actually seen a picture. I wish I had it. This is 20, 30 years ago that I saw a picture of a green stop sign in an apartment complex. And I don’t know the whole story there, but I suspect it was put in place by someone responsible for the landscaping. They thought a green stop sign would match the landscaping better than a red stop sign.

That’s called context sensitive solutions where I came from, isn’t it?

You call it a lot of things, but the one factual statement I can make is it’s a non-compliant application of the stop sign.

All right, I’ll take mine down. No, I know better. I don’t recall in your introduction talk in much about the international component of my question. Do you do any travel internationally or you do you speak anywhere else? And what can you say about things outside the U.S. that you might be able to share with our audience?

Well, over the last year and a half, I think the extent of my travel has mostly been between the front yard and the backyard. But prior to the pandemic, yes, I had traveled have traveled internationally. I have managed to go to some other areas as well. And what’s interesting is when you travel the world, you see there are different systems of traffic control devices. So what we use in the United States as a system of traffic control devices is different than what they use in Europe. And what’s in Australia is a little bit of both kind of European and American.

I found it really interesting back 30, 35 years ago. I was watching a documentary on Chernobyl. It was soon after the nuclear explosion at Chernobyl, and the camera zoomed in at the security entrance to the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. And you wouldn’t believe what was right there next to the entry to the checkpoint where the little guardhouse is. It was an American stop sign in the middle of the Soviet Union. Wow. That stopped. And so that red stop sign that we have in the United States is literally used throughout the world. Some countries change the legend. Many of them to use also Arret. Yes. Instead of stop. But that red octagon is pervasive throughout the world as an indication of a stop condition.

Do you have any final comments? This is your moment to preach to us, Dr. Hawkins, on safety or transportation or whatever you think as a nugget that you can leave us with?

Well, to kind of wrap things up. I have many of my students that start out a semester going, oh, I want to learn all about automated vehicles, because that’s what we’re going to have. By the time I graduate. And I think automated vehicles are something that will continue to grow within the vehicle fleet. I don’t think certainly within my lifetime and I’m approaching retirement age, we’re not going to see a Jetsons type environment. For those of you that are not old enough to know what The Jetsons are, look it up on YouTube. But I think we will see more and more penetration of the vehicle fleet of some technologies, driver assistance technologies in our vehicle fleet. But we are probably not going to see fully automated vehicles as a large percentage of the vehicle fleet during my lifetime, my children’s lifetime.

And I have a couple of grandchildren. They’re both less than five years old. And I believe both of them will have the option during their life to drive a manually operated vehicle if they choose to do so. The challenge to the traffic engineering profession is to figure out how to improve and maintain our system of traffic control and traffic control devices in a way that works for both human driven vehicles and for a steadily increasing number of vehicles with driver assistance and automation technologies. You actually require a significantly higher level of traffic control from the standpoint of consistency and uniformity for an automated system, at least at the present time with the technologies that are out, than you do with humans now. Humans are more subject to making mistakes, but they can process the variations in the system a lot better than the machine systems can. And so that’s going to be a real challenge.

And it’s particularly going to be a challenge for agencies that are responsible for the infrastructure, because for some agencies getting to a point where their traffic control infrastructure supports automated vehicles could be something that’s going to require more investment. And that starts getting in some of the policy issues. And my focus has always been on the traffic control and the traffic control devices.

OK, so noted we’ve been talking with Dr. Gene Hawkins, chair of the NCUTCD. We’re out of time today, but really want to thank you, Dr. Hawkins, for your time with us. A lot of good information in this episode, so thanks again.

My pleasure.

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