Seeing Yellow



Johann F. Szautner, PE, Civil Engineer ::::
We all know the meaning of “seeing red”, often associated with a state of heightened emotion when the blood pressure rises, and we become angry; like the bull when the matador teases him with a red cape to charge to his demise. However, if you are in anyway involved with analyzing personal injury accidents happening on roadways, on the grounds of facilities, institutions, or shopping centers, then you may get irritated by seeing yellow, the universal color of caution warnings, because of its counterproductive overuse negating its effect in situations where such warning is warranted.
Case synopsis: On a sunny summer day, the plaintiff, a shopper at a local supermarket, walked towards the store’s entrance. Access is by means of a ramp leading from the parking lot pavement to the sidewalk and front doors. The ramp configuration facilitates easy ingress and egress with shopping carts, and for people with disabilities (ADA). The ramp has a generous width of 16 feet between the flared end sections. Nevertheless, this shopper decided to step up on the sidewalk over the sloped curb section at the end of the ramp, but did not lift the right foot sufficiently, and tripped over the curb, landing on the concrete sidewalk, and sustaining multiple injuries. The complaint alleged that the shopper did not see the height of the curb, because it was not painted yellow.
Expert Analysis: During a site visit, measurements were taken to document building code compliance for all ramp components photographs were also taken to document that the sloped curb was conspicuous by its color contrast with the sidewalk, and additionally through the dark surface speckles, showing exposed aggregate.
The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) authorizes a wide variety of road signs and pavement markings. Some are used to alert motorists to pedestrian activity and to direct pedestrians to defined crossings and walking paths. Problems are created, however, when pedestrians assume that signs and paint markings will protect them from roadway and walkway hazards. Drivers and pedestrians often ignore signs and markings because they are ubiquitous, and in their experience, disobeying them had no negative consequences. On the other hand, signs and paint may lull pedestrians into a false sense of security. Signs and markings are governed by the FHWA Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD), which provides specifications on the design and placement of traffic control signs and markings installed within public rights-of-ways, and on private property to assure their legality. If signs and markings on private property do not follow the MUTCD specifications, their obeyance cannot be enforced. The MUTCD encourages a conservative use of signs and markings and recommends installing them only when they fulfill a need based on an engineering study or engineering judgment. The prevailing thinking among traffic engineers is that overuse of traffic control signs and markings leads to disrespect of them. The FHWA generally recommends using yellow painted curbs as an indication where parking is prohibited, or where there may be a pedestrian vehicular conflict point, like a passenger drop off and pick up location, or a loading zone. Neither ADA nor PennDOT regulations require sloped curbs at a ramp to be painted yellow. Painting the top and the vertical face yellow can result in a 2-dimensional appearance, like a yellow stripe, confusing the person wanting to step over it.
Outcome: The case settled for an undisclosed amount.
Johann F. Szautner, PE, is a Civil Engineer with DJS Associates, and can be reached via email at or via phone at 215-659-2010.

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Tags: Building Code | Civil Engineer | Johann F. Szautner


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