Most cities, including Everett, have no plans to kill off “Dead End” signs like this one in the Port Gardner Neighborhood. But other cities are moving away from the term, citing a stigma or lack of clarity. (Herald photo)

Most cities, including Everett, have no plans to kill off “Dead End” signs like this one in the Port Gardner Neighborhood. But other cities are moving away from the term, citing a stigma or lack of clarity. (Herald photo)

Is it time to kill off the ‘Dead End’ sign?

Some cities are moving away from the somber verbiage in favor of more descriptive terms.

Jim Larsen, of Langley, asked: “Are ‘No Outlet’ signs slowly killing off ‘Dead End’ signs? I’ve worried about this for years. Haven’t seen a new Dead End sign installed … Maybe the term Dead End creates anxiety.”

Turns out Larsen was on to something.

I asked local public works departments about their practices: Did they still use “Dead End”? Is there a stigma against the sign?

Most city staff gave the engineering equivalent of a shrug, by citing chapters and verses from the transportation bible that is the Federal Highway Administration’s Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices.

They follow the common practice of using both types of signs: “Dead End” at the entry of a single road that has no other exit; “No Outlet” at the entry to a network of roads that have no other exit.

However, a careful reading shows cities could use “No Outlet” in both situations.

And Arlington, Lynnwood and Edmonds are among local cities killing off “Dead End.”

Arlington switched to using “No Outlet” exclusively about nine years ago, finding it to be a better description, Public Works Director James Kelly said.

Lynnwood also favors “No Outlet.”

“The idea was that ‘No Outlet’ was a more pleasant sound versus ‘Dead End’ and keeps things uniform throughout the city,” city spokeswoman Julie Moore said.

Edmonds takes it a step further.

The city has been replacing its “Dead End” signs with “Street Ends.”

“It’s got the ‘dead’ word in there. We wanted to pull away from that,” transportation engineer Bertrand Hauss said.

(Turns out “Street Ends” is fine, even if it doesn’t appear in the manual. There’s wiggle room for warning signs. Though some may call that heresy.)

This has been going on for awhile. Over a decade, for Edmonds.

You could say it’s all part of lingering angst in the national psyche.

History lesson!

“Dead end” has etymological roots in an 1800s plumbing term.

The term has been used metaphorically since the 1920s, as noted by the late New York Times columnist William Safire in a 2008 column.

It was Sidney Kingsley’s 1935 play “Dead End” (later made into a film starring Humphrey Bogart) that “dramatically put together the street sign and the idea of lives with no upward mobility likely — bleak futures in an unfair society,” as Safire put it.

The bleakness stuck. And “Dead End” signs started disappearing in some cities.

More cities kept them, however. And you will still find “Dead End” signs in Sutton Place, the New York City neighborhood that inspired Kingsley’s play.

The federal manual that offers guidance on signs steers clear of such emotional baggage, of course. (It’s more concerned with shapes, caps lock, and the color yellow.)

Dead end signs have been around since at least the 1930s. The manual came around in 1935. The section on dead end signs, however, didn’t appear until the 1971 edition. A whole host of signs were added that year to the national how-to as part of a significant rewrite, according to history compiled by H. Gene Hawkins, an engineering professor at Texas A&M University.

At that time, the manual lumped together “Dead End” and “No Outlet,” noting they could be used interchangeably.

The current language didn’t come until the 2000 edition, a millennium effort that aimed to (ostensibly) clean up a whole bunch of confusing language.

The living and the dead

Like language, sign decisions also shift over time.

Snohomish has some “No Outlet” signs at the entry of single roads that have no other exit, but in new situations uses “Dead End.”

Langley has both with no policy preferring one over the other.

Stanwood leaves the decision up to developers.

“I don’t think we even have a ‘Dead End’ sign,” Darrington Mayor Dan Rankin said.

But if he were to choose for his scenic small town, Rankin said he’d go with “No Outlet.”

“I don’t see a debate in that. It’s a better description,” Rankin said. “And probably easier to translate if you were not fluent in the English language. … ‘Dead’ and ‘End’ — that doesn’t sound like a good outcome. We’re not going there no matter how beautiful it is.”

Melissa Slager’s last day at The Herald was Dec. 21, after more than four years as the Street Smarts reporter. She has several columns banked that will run in the coming weeks.

Talk to us

> Give us your news tips.

> Send us a letter to the editor.

> More Herald contact information.

More in Local News

Traffic idles while waiting for the lights to change along 33rd Avenue West on Tuesday, April 2, 2024 in Lynnwood, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Lynnwood seeks solutions to Costco traffic boondoggle

Let’s take a look at the troublesome intersection of 33rd Avenue W and 30th Place W, as Lynnwood weighs options for better traffic flow.

A memorial with small gifts surrounded a utility pole with a photograph of Ariel Garcia at the corner of Alpine Drive and Vesper Drive ion Wednesday, April 10, 2024 in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Death of Everett boy, 4, spurs questions over lack of Amber Alert

Local police and court authorities were reluctant to address some key questions, when asked by a Daily Herald reporter this week.

The new Amazon fulfillment center under construction along 172nd Street NE in Arlington, just south of Arlington Municipal Airport. (Chuck Taylor / The Herald) 20210708
Frito-Lay leases massive building at Marysville business park

The company will move next door to Tesla and occupy a 300,0000-square-foot building at the Marysville business park.

Logo for news use featuring the municipality of Snohomish in Snohomish County, Washington. 220118
Driver arrested in fatal crash on Highway 522 in Maltby

The driver reportedly rear-ended Jeffrey Nissen as he slowed down for traffic. Nissen, 28, was ejected and died at the scene.

PAWS Veterinarian Bethany Groves in the new surgery room at the newest PAWS location on Saturday, April 20, 2024 in Snohomish, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
New Snohomish hospital makes ‘massive difference’ for wild animals

Lynnwood’s Progressive Animal Welfare Society will soon move animals to its state of the art, 25-acre facility.

Traffic builds up at the intersection of 152nd St NE and 51st Ave S on Tuesday, April 16, 2024, in Marysville, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Here’s your chance to weigh in on how Marysville will look in 20 years

Marysville is updating its comprehensive plan and wants the public to weigh in on road project priorities.

Mountlake Terrace Mayor Kyko Matsumoto-Wright on Wednesday, April 10, 2024 in Mountlake Terrace, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
With light rail coming soon, Mountlake Terrace’s moment is nearly here

The anticipated arrival of the northern Link expansion is another sign of a rapidly changing city.

Logo for news use featuring the municipality of Snohomish in Snohomish County, Washington. 220118
1 dead in motorcycle crash on Highway 522 in Maltby

Authorities didn’t have any immediate details about the crash that fully blocked the highway Friday afternoon.

Photographs in the 2024 Annual Black and White Photography Contest on display at the Schack Art Center on Thursday, April 18, 2024 in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Black and white photos aren’t old school for teens at Schack Art Center

The photography contest, in its 29th year, had over 170 entries. See it at the Schack in Everett through May 5.

A memorial with small gifts surrounded a utility pole with a photograph of Ariel Garcia at the corner of Alpine Drive and Vesper Drive ion Wednesday, April 10, 2024 in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Everett mom charged with first-degree murder in death of son, 4

On Friday, prosecutors charged Janet Garcia, 27, three weeks after Ariel Garcia went missing from an Everett apartment.

Dr. Mary Templeton (Photo provided by Lake Stevens School District)
Lake Stevens selects new school superintendent

Mary Templeton, who holds the top job in the Washougal School District, will take over from Ken Collins this summer.

A closed road at the Heather Lake Trail parking lot along the Mountain Loop Highway in Snohomish County, Washington on Wednesday, July 20, 2023. (Annie Barker / The Herald)
Mountain Loop Highway partially reopens Friday

Closed since December, part of the route to some of the region’s best hikes remains closed due to construction.

Support local journalism

If you value local news, make a gift now to support the trusted journalism you get in The Daily Herald. Donations processed in this system are not tax deductible.