Changes to the Federal Sign Manual…What Does it Mean for Us?

The feds propose changes to the thick Manual that regulates traffic signs. What does this mean for out of home (OOH) media?

  • The federal government is affirming/reinforcing that traffic signs are for traffic control, not advertising.
  • The feds want to tweak the Logo program (blue-backed signs near freeway exits).
  • Comments (to the feds) are due by March 15. Click here.


As government struggles to pay for transportation, it has considered various ways to monetize the public right of way . . . including the introduction of commercial advertising onto the traveled way.

The US Department of Transportation and its Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) consistently have blocked commercialization of the right of way. The feds said “no” to:

  • Texas Department of Transportation’s proposal to sell corporate sponsorships of highway signs (2017)
  • Advertising on the backsides of traffic signs (2017)
  • Arizona’s request to commercialize rest areas (2018)

What is the MUTCD?

The Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUCTD) — nearly 900 pages — prescribes traffic sign design and placement. It was revised in 2012. This Manual enforces uniformity of traffic signs for the sake of driver safety and quick, easy recognition of signs.

On December 14, 2020, the Federal Highway Administration posted 82 pages (in the Federal Register) listing hundreds of  proposed changes to the Manual.

Imitation of traffic signs

Government policy discourages graphics/symbols in roadside advertising that resemble traffic signs, to avoid confusion. The feds say the new sign Manual should read: “States are encouraged to adopt, through policy or legislation, the provisions of (Code of Federal Regulations) that restrict OOH advertising from resembling traffic control devices.”

The federal code says no sign may be permitted which imitates or resembles any official traffic sign, signal or device.

The Logo Sign Program

The feds want to scrap a little-used category from the blue-backed “Logo sign” program that directs highway motorists to food, gas, lodging, camping, and attractions.

In 2004, President Bush signed an appropriations bill that directed US-DOT to change the traffic sign Manual to allow 24-hour pharmacies to be listed on highway Logo signs.  Due to little demand, the feds now propose to delete 24-hour pharmacies.

Tourist-oriented Directional signs (TODs), Specific Service signs (Logo signs), and Acknowledgement signs (such as Adopt-a-Highway) are not considered advertising. Rather, they are classified as “motorist service signs.”

No Ads on Traffic Signs

The proposed changes reiterate that “traffic control devices or their supports shall not bear any advertising message or any other message that is not related to traffic control.”

  • Pictographs (to identify government jurisdictions, agencies, or universities/colleges) shall be devoid of any advertising and (new language added) “not contain any quick-response (QR) codes, bar codes, or other graphics designed for optical scanning for the purpose of obtaining information.”
  • State Welcome signs “shall not display messages that emulate promotional advertising of any type.”
  • “Changeable message signs (on the highway) shall display only traffic operational, regulatory, warning and guidance information except as otherwise provided for in this chapter. Advertising or other messages not related to traffic control shall not be displayed or changeable message signs or its supports or other equipment.”
  • Memorial or dedication signs “should be devoid of any appearance of advertising…”
  • Destination Guide signs: “Business logos, commercial graphics, or other forms of advertising shall not be used on Destination Guide signs for shared-use paths or sign assemblies.”