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Will Delaying New Road Signs Compromise Traffic Safety?

In March of this year, US Transportation Secretary, Ray LaHood, announced that the government was dropping its requirement that the states install new road signs that meet updated standards for coloring, text design, and retro-reflectivity.  This was a follow up to his comments in January, in which he said that “states, cities and towns should not be required to spend money that they don’t have to replace perfectly good traffic signs.” 

The news was welcomed by governors and state legislatures across the country, who have long complained that the regulations impose an onerous financial burden on them.  Safety and traffic management experts see it differently, however.  They worry that dropping the initiative will decrease sign visibility, especially at night, and lead to increased accidents and fatalities on our nation’s roads.

The move towards upgrading traffic signs actually began back in 1993.  An appropriations bill signed into law that year required the DOT to develop nationwide retro-reflectivity standards.  Retro-reflectivity refers to the ability of a sign to reflect light from headlamps back to a vehicle, as opposing to diffusing it in all directions, as most metals do.  The higher the retro-reflectivity, the brighter and more noticeable the marker is.

Sign visibility is a major concern, especially at night, when half of all traffic fatalities occur.  Reference points that drivers use during the day, such as buildings and trees, are no longer visible.  This, combined with higher levels of fatigue and other impairments, is responsible for the percentage of accidents that occur between dusk and dawn, even though only a quarter of all driving takes place during these hours.

This problem is expected to become much worse over the next decade, due to the aging of the population.  Drivers 65 years old need four times the light required by 25 year olds to see the same road sign.  Also, as people age, their reaction times slow considerably.  According to the AARP, by 2020, one in five motorists will be 65 or older.  By 2025, that will increase to one out of four.  These statistics show that there needs to be consideration for the future risks that plague nighttime driving.

Current MUTCD guidelines for new road signs mandate that “regulatory, warning, and guide signs shall be retro-reflective or illuminated to show the same shape and similar color by day and night.”  Under the now-defunct directives, states would have been required to create a plan to ensure that minimum retro-reflectivity standards would be met and maintained.  By 2018, all road signs would have had to conform to those standards. Now, with the retraction of these guidelines, the changes LaHood implemented will remove 46 federally mandated traffic control directives. 

“A specific deadline for replacing street signs makes no sense and would have cost communities across America millions of dollars in unnecessary expenses.  After speaking with local and state officials across the country, we are proposing to eliminate these burdensome regulations.  It’s just common sense,” said Mr. LaHood.   Speaking in support of this position, Federal Highway Administration head, Victor Mendez, remarked that “local and state transportation agencies are best-equipped to determine when they need to replace signs and other items in the course of their daily work.” 

Indeed, some states have acted on their own to implement new road signs to meet the new retro-reflectivity standards.  For example, officials with the Pennsylvania DOT recently announced that 97% of their 1.4 millions signs already comply with them.

Other states, however, are far behind in their efforts to improve retro-reflectivity levels on their roads.  Without the impetus of federal mandates to spur such efforts on, the future looks dark indeed for nighttime driving safety.