If it ain't broke, replace it

It's a small, stupid, and insignificant thing that nobody consciously thinks about, and it's gotten me mad as hell. I know, the "small, stupid" part got you thinking about Tom Daschle (rest his political soul), but I'm actually referring to Clearview, a relatively new typeface developed for use on the big green guide signs that you'll find along America's expressways.

If you go back—way back—to the '40s and earlier, highway signs were all in capital letters and used a kind of block lettering. In those days, guide signs didn't really exist, mainly because expressways didn't exist. After World War II, automobile sales skyrocketed, states scrambled to build limited-access turnpikes, and with Eisenhower's Interstate System in the not-to-distant future, the country needed new lettering for guide signs. Modern-styled capital letters began appearing in the late '40s, and the California Department of Highways developed lowercase accompaniments which made their way onto guide signs across the United States in the '50s. The typestyle would become a classic...instantly recognizable as an American roadside icon.

40 years later, Clearview was developed by the Pennsylvania Transportation Institute (PTI), a research operation at my own alma matter, Penn State. The PTI, apparently running low on problems to solve, decided to find a way to save the millions of people who die trying to tell whether a sign says "New York" or "Free Hamburgers." Clearview was based largely on Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) typefaces that already existed, but the open spaces within the Clearview letters were enlarged and little hook-like appendages were added to lowercase letters like a, l, and g. Almost all of the differences lie in the lowercase letters; the capitals are just about the same.

According to the PTI, the problems with existing FHWA typestyles have to do with improvements in the highly reflective sheeting used on the guide signs. The PTI hucksters say that small spaces within letters cause a phenomenon called haloing or blooming, where a bright haze surrounds the letter and makes it difficult to read. Difficult for one group in particular: the blue-hairs.

FHWA Series E Modified (top) and Clearview 5-W (bottom)

Yes, Clearview boils down to another sacrifice that our nation supposedly "must" make for the elderly in our society. Now, I have a great deal of respect for seasoned citizens (just ask my Gram), but we need to be realistic. Like prescription drug coverage, increased Social Security benefits, and a free Rascal electric scooter, this is something to which old people are entitled, and it cannot be questioned, right?

This leads me to wonder something: will Clearview be approved for use on bingo cards?

Fogies aside, there are realistic reasons why Clearview isn't worth the billions that would be needed to spread the new typeface across the country.

First off, the PTI's own test results are mixed, and when Clearview does show superior legibility, it's not a dramatic difference. According to the study, only one scenario puts Clearview at an advantage: light-colored letters on a dark background mounted overhead. That's it. Even in that instance, Clearview is only about 19 percent more legible. Dark Clearview letters on a light background are less legible than existing FHWA typefaces in the same application. The same is true for the great number of guide signs that are mounted on the ground; Clearview is more difficult to read.

Even if Clearview is a little more legible in certain circumstances, the supposed advantages of Clearview have everything to do with lowercase letters, and there is only one place you'll find lowercase letters on highway signs: city names. Traffic engineers refer to these city names as "control cities." For example, let's say you're in Allentown and are going to drive to Norristown for the day. You know that you have to get on Interstate 476 headed south, and the guide sign says "I-476 SOUTH - Philadelphia." Of course you know that you're not going to Philadelphia, but you're headed in that general direction. The main item you are looking for is "I-476 SOUTH," but the control city helps to reinforce that you are headed in the right direction. The control city is not a decision maker, it only makes you a little surer that you're making the right move. The most important action words like "KEEP LEFT," "WEST," and "STOP" are all in capital letters.

Still, many other factors play a greater role in a driver's ability to comprehend signing and remain alert behind the wheel. Pennsylvania, while better than many states in terms of signing practices, often breaks FHWA rules regarding guide signs. For example, no individual guide sign may contain more than two control cities, and no assembly of multiple guide signs may contain more that three. I can identify individual guide signs with four control cities and assemblies with six city names—twice the number allowed. Federal guidelines also stipulate that the sequence of guide signs for one interchange should not overlap the sequence of signs for another interchange, but this practice is common in Pennsylvania. Aside from these violations, PennDOT uses small ground-mounted signs on many of the state's heavily traveled sub-Interstate highways, and this is allowed, but larger overhead signs would be much more readable and save many more lives than playing around with Clearview would.

FHWA Series F (top) and Clearview 5-W (bottom)

I have not seen any studies regarding other typefaces, but I have wondered how FHWA Series F would compare with Clearview. Series F is not currently used on guide signs, and it has larger spaces within its letters, so perhaps it would resist haloing as much as Clearview. Being from the same family, F has much of the same look and feel as E Modified.

Even if the states' transportation officials could implement Clearview at no cost, there's another reason to stick with the FHWA typestyles. It's a matter of identity. Read a love note penned by your girlfriend and you'll feel her emotion in the stroke of each letter. Speak to marketing experts, and they will tell you that banners, signs, and printed material have a big impact on an organization's brand image. In the same way, the distinct lettering that drivers have come to know on guide signs give an identity, an image, and a face to the Interstates that hold our nation together. It's an image of suburban upward mobility, overnight truckers listening to C.W. McCall's "Convoy", and young people discovering America on cross-country road trips. It's also an image that can't be allowed to pass away.

Clearview is very un-American; if it was any less American, it would be riding public transportation. In fact, it's nearly identical to the typestyle used in the UK on their motorways. With Clearview, you feel like you have to be in a Renault to look at it. It's a shame that the PTI has nothing better to do with their time. I hope that none of my tuition dollars (or tax dollars, for that matter) are supporting their woolgathering, but they probably are.

Next week from the PTI: dehydrated water. Just add water.