Recent news reports from New York City highlighted some recent and not-so-recent changes in federal rules impacting street signs to improve readability.

Federal guidelines for governing street signs, pavement markings and all other standards for streets and roads open to public traffic are published in the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD). Updates in 2000, 2003, and 2009 made significant changes in standards for street name signs impacting cities. (You can view the MUTDC here.)

The latest standards reflect updates on safety and are intended to enhance the ability of drivers to read signs more quickly, especially at night. The quicker a driver can read information from a sign, the less time they take from the road, according to safety research.

According to new standards issued by the Federal Highway Administration of the U.S. Department of Transportation, the lettering and materials for street name signs must be changed to reflect current research on safety.

The change garnering news headlines was a required change from street name signs with all capital letters to mixed case letters that has no deadline, according to the Federal Highway Administration, and can be done by cities whenever they would replace their street name signs due to normal wear and tear.

However, there is a 2018 deadline for changing street name signs to minimum letter heights, which was included in the update to the MUTCD in 2000 and updated in 2003. Cities need to have a replacement plan in place by 2012. Many cities have been updating these new standards as part of another change included in the latest update of the MUTCD in January 2009.

A newer ruling on “retroreflectivity” for easier night viewing of street signs was adopted in late 2007 and went into effect in January 2008. Many cities are changing the lettering on their street signs as they comply with the newer ruling and when signs need to be replaced.

Agencies have until January 2012 to establish and implement a sign assessment or management method to maintain minimum levels of sign retroreflectivity. The compliance date for regulatory, warning, and ground-mounted guide signs is January 2015. For overhead guide signs and street name signs, the compliance date is January 2018.

The retroreflectivity rule was requested by Congress in 1993 to make street and highway signs more visible at night.

The American Public Works Association has been working with its members for several years on the implementation of these rules and has the following resources available online:

Sign Retroreflectivity: What is it and Why Should I Care (Retroreflectivity Part 1):
(broadcast Oct. 15, 2009, and rebroadcast Feb. 11, 2010)

Sign Retroreflectivity: Best Management Practices for How to Implement (Retroreflectivity Part 2):
(broadcast Nov. 5, 2009 and rebroadcast Feb. 25, 2010)

MUTCD Revisions: Changes Every Local Community Needs to Know

Finally, the Federal Highway Administration has prepared a sign retroreflective toolkit. Copies can be ordered online. The toolkit provides information to assist smaller and medium sized agencies to meet the new requirements and consists of a compact disc and guidebook that helps agencies establish a maintenance program and set a budget for updating their traffic signs.

(This article, written by Leslie Wollack with the National League of Cities, is reprinted with permission from NLC.)

TML member cities may use the material herein for any purpose.
No other person or entity may reproduce, duplicate, or distribute any part of this document without the written authorization of the
Texas Municipal League.

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