Sign Maintenance Requirements for Local Government

April 3, 2012

Federal transportation rules require local governments to establish and implement a sign maintenance program addressing minimum sign retroreflectivity requirements. The initial deadline to have a plan in place was January 22, 2012; however, a pending amendment to the federal transportation rules proposes to delay the deadline until two years following adoption of the final rules, which is expected to occur in early to mid-2012. Cities are encouraged to go ahead and adopt a plan or policy to address replacement of signs on city streets. This edition of Ask GMA will focus on the minimum sign retroreflectivity requirements.

What Is Retroreflectivity?
“Retroreflectivity” describes how light is reflected from a surface and returned to its original source (“retro”-reflector). Traffic signs are made with retroreflective sheeting materials to increase their visibility at night. Maintaining traffic sign retroreflectivity is important to promoting nighttime traffic safety.

Traffic signs use technology with small glass beads or prismatic reflectors that reflect light from vehicle headlamps back to the vehicle and the driver’s eyes, thus making the sign appear more bright and visible to the driver.

What is the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices?
The Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD), published by the U.S. Department of Transportation—Federal Highway Administration, sets forth basic principles of traffic signs: namely to promote safety and efficiency on our public roads. Traffic signs inform motorists of regulations, warn of potential hazards on or near the roadway and help ensure that motorists reach their destinations as safely and efficiently as possible.

The MUTCD establishes uniform standards for traffic signs. Recently adopted language in the MUTCD now requires all agencies that maintain roadways open to public travel to adopt a sign maintenance program designed to maintain traffic sign retroreflectivity at or above specific levels.

Why Are Retroreflectivity Standards Important?
Highway statistics nationwide reveal that the nighttime fatal crash rate is approximately three times that of the daytime crash rate, measured in million miles traveled. Every public agency responsible for maintaining public highways and streets is required to use retroreflective materials on traffic control devices to facilitate driver safety. Moreover, improving nighttime visibility of traffic signs is ever more important as the older driver population increases.

What Are the New Retroreflectivity Requirements?
For years, the MUTCD has required signs to be either illuminated or made with retroreflective sheeting materials. (For specific language in the MUTCD, visit http://mutcd.fhwa.dot.gov/.)

Most signs in the United States fall in the latter category, but these materials have a limited life. They degrade over time. Until now, little information has existed to determine when signs should be replaced based on their retroreflectivity.

The 2003 MUTCD Edition, Revision 2, identifies minimum required retroreflectivity levels. If a sign falls below this minimum value, it needs to be replaced. Different types and quality of sheeting materials are available, and the effective life of a sign (that is, its retroreflectivity) will depend largely upon which material is chosen. To meet the requirements, all agencies must implement a traffic sign maintenance program by using one of the MUTCD’s predetermined methods.

Failure to use one of the methods could result in lawsuits from drivers or their families who suffer injury or death attributable to substandard sign retroreflectivity maintenance.

Cities will not need to measure retroreflectivity levels of all their signs, but they do need to implement a program that regularly evaluates and assesses the nighttime performance of their signs.

What is the status of federal retroreflectivity rules, and what should Georgia cities do to remain in compliance?
During 2011, controversy over the federal reflectivity rules erupted in the media over proposed requirements for local agencies to change their street signs from upper case letters to a mix of upper and lower case letters that was really a requirement for a plan to replace street signs as they wore out. As a result of the controversy, US DOT Secretary Ray LaHood ordered FHWA to review all the street sign rules, particularly in light of the costs to cities during fiscal stress. As part of the federal effort to streamline regulations, in August 2011, the Department of Transportation announced the elimination or extension of the majority of compliance dates for replacing street signs based on complaints from state and local governments over the cost of complying with rules outlined in the MUTCD. At that time, FHWA eliminated the deadlines for the street sign lettering rule (upper and lower case letters to replace all upper case) and reopened the comment period on the retroreflectivity portion.

Cities are still required to adopt an assessment/ management plan to maintain signs above minimum retroreflective levels. However, the compliance date is expected to be extended to a date two years after the effective date of the final rule (January 2014). Accordingly, cities do not need to have an assessment or management method in place by Jan. 22, 2012, but they still need to develop a policy for sign replacement.

Where can my city find more information about retroreflectivity?
For more information and additional resources, please visit the GMA website or contact Becky Taylor of the GMA staff at 678-686-6276 or btaylor@gmanet.com.