A Holiday Inn every few miles, a McDonald's fry pit off almost every exit and green road signs with white letters. The uniformity of the 46,876 miles that comprise the Interstate Highway System environment is so seamless it's easy to take it for granted.

Motorists may soon notice subtle changes. The Federal Highway Administration said Thursday it will discontinue use of the "Clearview" font on road signs later this month.

The termination of Clearview ends what essentially has been a 12-year experiment. Highway administrators gave conditional approval to the use of the font in 2004, believing it would make road signs easier to read from greater distances at night. Alas, recent studies have not supported that early hope.

With a decade's worth of use, the agency, which falls under the Department of Transportation, says early successes were most likely due to the fact that older, worn signs had been replaced with newer, cleaner ones that used brighter materials. FHA administrator Gregory Nadeau says, the agency concluded reflective sign sheeting materials made more of a difference in nighttime visibility than the font used.

"Whether guardrails, pavement markings, the placement of highway signs, or even the font on them, we are constantly studying ways to improve the safety of the driving public." - Gregory Nadeau


"Clearview was allowed to be used while research about its benefits continued, and now we know," he writes in a blog post for the Department of Transportation. "Whether guardrails, pavement markings, the placement of highway signs, or even the font on them, we are constantly studying ways to improve the safety of the driving public."

Signs that feature the Clearview font won't need to be replaced immediately; they will be allowed to remain in place until their useful life ends. But the agency has directed its staff to revert to using the previous standard font, "Highway Gothic."

As it turns out, there's a whole science behind what drivers see on the road. Did you know, for instance, those blue signs that feature restaurants and gas stations at an upcoming exit can contain a maximum of six logos, because that's the most an average driver can mentally process in two seconds or less? Since the late 1940s, the size and font of road signs has been governed by a document called the Standard Alphabets for Traffic Control Devices. The California Department of Transportation studied which fonts were the most legible and chose a style of Gothic that was modified to give the letters more spacing and a more rounded shape.

The document divides letters into three classifications based on their shape and assigns spacing differences accordingly. Each upper-case and lower-case letter come with their own distinct recommended spacing, and the 52-page document is filled with rules and recommendations on how each sign should be measured. It's a document perhaps only the government could create – and one only a designer could love.

The degree of precision outlined in the standards has guided highway planners and been implemented by road crews for the better part of eight decades. Even if the nation's 210 million motorists don't necessarily appreciate their meticulous nature, they rely upon it every day.

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