Road Rules: Intersection artwork


Question: Lately I’ve driven through some intersections that have artwork painted on the pavement, including some multi-colored crosswalks. I think it looks great, but I wonder if it distracts drivers and makes intersections less safe. And is it legal to paint crosswalks whatever color you want? I thought there were rules that specified the colors for crosswalks and other street markings.

Answer: I have often said (possibly to the point of irritation) that predictability is a core component in safe driving. When we follow traffic laws, other drivers can better anticipate our actions, and it creates harmony and safety on the road. But what about our transportation infrastructure? Should the markings on the roadways also be predictable? Yes, they should.

Imagine if every county and city decided how to mark roadways independent of each other. Absent a national standard, each jurisdiction could choose whatever colors and patterns they wanted to mark their fog lines, bike lanes, and crosswalks. An artsy town might paint a centerline of salmon spawning up the road. Fortunately, we have bureaucracy. That’s not a sentence you hear every day. The Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) sets the standard for road signs, signals, and markings. States adopt the MUTCD (sometimes with some changes) as state law.

Some cities permit, and even encourage neighborhoods (with proper permits) to paint art in crosswalks and intersections. But the MUTCD states in bold text, “Crosswalk markings shall be white.” How do neighborhoods get away with painting multicolored crosswalks without running afoul of the law? And how can cities encourage their citizens to violate the law? As you might have guessed, they don’t.

There are a variety of ways to mark a crosswalk; the two most common are a pair of parallel lines or a series of bars. Those lines or bars are required to be white. However, the interstitial space isn’t part of the crosswalk marks. In fact, the latest version of the MUTCD includes “provisions for aesthetic treatments for the interior portion of a legally established crosswalk.”

As long as your artwork doesn’t cause confusion for pedestrians with vision disabilities, uses colors that are outside the range used for traffic markings, doesn’t include advertising, and doesn’t encourage loitering in the crosswalk (because the design is so interesting that people don’t want to leave) you’re in good standing with the MUTCD.

But just because it’s legal doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. If crosswalk and intersection art cause more crashes, that’s a problem. And I can see why you might suspect that. Could the novelty of art in the street distract drivers from where they should be looking? It turns out, no. Until recently, this was speculative. But a 2022 study of multiple asphalt art sites found a 50 percent decrease in crashes involving pedestrians after the art was installed. Let’s say that again. 50 percent decrease. The only passive intervention I can think of with a greater positive impact is roundabouts. The same study showed positive behavior changes, too. Drivers yielded to pedestrians more often, and pedestrians crossed when the “don’t walk” sign was illuminated less often.

Asphalt art is legal (with reasonable limits) and, at least according to the only study out there so far, it has a remarkably positive impact on traffic safety, especially for pedestrians. Meanwhile, pedestrian traffic fatalities have more than doubled in the past decade. If intersection and crosswalk art is allowed in your city, maybe it’s time to rally the neighbors (especially the artistic ones), grab your paint brushes, and transform your streets. (After following all approval and permit processes, of course.)

Doug Dahl is a manager with the Washington Traffic Safety Commission, Region 11 and publishes


No comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here