Nats: The Curly W used to be on road signs, why it isn’t anymore

Photo used with permission of Flickr user SteelYankee
A few weeks ago, DC Sports Bog (The Post) answered a reader question about why the Washington Nationals “curly W” logo was removed from signs along Interstate 395 (Southwest Freeway) for Nationals Park: What happened to the Curly W on D.C. freeway signs?. Presumably, the curly W’s will are have already been removed from other roads like I-695 (Southeast Freeway) and I-295 (Anacostia Freeway).

Something similar happened in 2010 when the Maryland State Highway Administration removed curly W logos from big green signs too. Frankly, I was surprised they were there in the first place. I inquired with the SHA back then and was told they violated the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) standards. A follow-up email was never answered by SHA and I never got back to writing about those signs, though I did note that both the Washington Redskins & FedEx Field (located at EXIT 16 of I-95/495 Capital Beltway) and the Baltimore Orioles, Baltimore Ravens and M&T Bank Stadium logos were still posted. One wonders why just one team was removed, but I’ll let you draw your own conclusions.

In the DCRoads.net Facebook group, Mike Tantillo, a member of the National Committee on Uniform Traffic Control Device gave some me more background the rationale:

In no other city are the sports team logos placed on the signs. And a symbol is technically defined as a pictogram, which the official definition states is a symbol that represents a government agency or other public sector institution. The public sector bit was inserted into the MUTCD for the specific purpose of preventing entities like sports teams and shopping malls from putting their symbols up on primary guide signs (they would be allowed on the “attractions” category of Specific Service/logo signs…along with gas, food, lodging, etc.).

So naturally after arguing the point about public sector vs. private sector in front of the National Committee on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, FHWA was none-too-amused when these logos showed up on the signs right next to their headquarters. So FHWA challenged DDOT and Maryland SHA on the use of the logos, saying that these did not represent pictograms and would therefore have to become “experimental” and go through human factors testing, just like any other experimental traffic control device.

So they did the human factors testing, and they had to prove that the curly W’s actually enhanced drivers’ ability to find Nats Park, without being a distraction…which is the same standard given to an experiment of any other traffic control device. As part of the experiment, DDOT and Maryland SHA had to agree that they would hold funds in reserve to abort the experiment if there were safety concerns or the results were not positive. In this case, the results were inconclusive and showed a distraction, therefore the experimental signs were removed according to the agreement that DDOT and SHA had with Federal Highway Administration.

In order for a symbol to be effective, it has to be simple, easily recognizable, and its meaning needs to be easily understood by all drivers, even those who have not been “taught” in advance what it means. I think DDOT would have had more successful experiment if they had placed a sign saying “Nationals Park, follow ‘W’ “, and then just used the W like a trailblazer. In this circumstance, you’ve taught the unfamiliar non-local driver (remember, that is who we design signs for) what the ‘W’ means in terms of the traffic/road sign context. However part of me thinks that DDOT didn’t originally intend for the W’s to be part of a navigational exercise and thought they could just slap them on as taxpayer-funded advertising for a private enterprise. And lots of it, seeing as these were on primary guide signs, so they were repeated multiple times in a sequence.

I don’t find fault with the decision to remove the curly W, though I would have thought it was a much more useful than their tests showed. That’s why I’m the road geek highway enthusiast and the transportation professionals make the decisions. Note, this line of thinking is not at all applicable to things like analysis of sports or other things of great import.

Having commercial logos on official signs is certainly problematic so that’s reason enough for me, even as a Nats fan. The publicly financed stadium is more than enough. I certainly hope that Maryland has removed those other team logos as they did, so swiftly, with the curly W.

I wonder if the DC United logos have been removed as well.

By the way, it isn’t unheard of for mass transit systems to use team logos in their stations — I remember seeing an Expos sign in the Pie-IX Metro when I visited Montreal in September 2004. I think the Addison stop on Chicago’s L has Cubs logos too. The Nats wanted WMATA to add the curly W to the Metro map and signage (JDLand), but the transit agency declined. By the way, if you are wanting a transit system to add your logo, you may want to think about putting down a deposit to keep the system running.

Lastly, the conversation that came with posting the DC Sports Bog story made me realize that one of my favorite posts, comparing the Nats cap to other post-expansion caps, was lost in a migration. I’ve put it up again. Yay.

Opening Day is 43 days away

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