Recent reports that new federal regulations requiring a replacement of existing road signs could bankrupt cities and other entities are not entirely based on fact, according to one of the nation’s leading experts on traffic control device regulations.
“Some of the reporting is not painting an accurate picture of the economic impact,” says Gene Hawkins, a research engineer with the Texas Transportation Institute and an associate professor at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas. Hawkins is an expert on the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, or MUTCD.
The debate is over new requirements about street-sign lettering and the perception that the government is forcing state and local agencies to spend millions of dollars to replace perfectly good signs because they have all capital letters.
“In reality, agencies are allowed to replace many of the signs in question as they wear out,” Hawkins reveals. “Perhaps some of the entities did not notice those options.” Hawkins is referring to the specific new requirement that signs with all caps be changed to mixed-case lettering. While there is a requirement that newly installed signs be mixed case, there is no requirement to immediately replace signs using all capital letters. The deadlines for replacing existing street-name signs relates to replacing signs that have letters that are too small or that are not bright enough at night.
Some of the new requirements about signs, like the size of the letters, were written into decade-old MUTCDs. “The year 2000 manual established six inches as the minimum letter size for most street name signs and gave agencies 12 years to implement the change. The 2003 MUTCD increased the minimum letter size to eight inches for higher speed roads with a 2018 deadline for meeting the requirement. These changes were consistent with the long-term trend of increasing sign sizes over time.”
Hawkins says that many agencies were already using six-inch letters on street-name signs at the time the regulations were added to the MUTCD. He also points out that the average lifespan of street signs is 7 to 12 years, meaning that all of the signs should need replacement anyway before the deadlines. “The fact that many of the signs will be replaced due to routine maintenance means that there should be minimal costs incurred,” Hawkins says.
In all fairness, Hawkins — who chairs the Markings Committee of the National Committee on Uniform Traffic Control Devices — admits that the volume of information within the 800-page manual can be confusing, especially for smaller agencies without a traffic department.
The MUTCD not only regulates every traffic control device on every street, highway, and even bicycle trail open to the public, it also determines letter sizing, sign retroreflectivity and materials and width requirements for pavement markings.
“Obviously, implementing some of these changes, especially during these economic times, comes at a price,” Hawkins admits. “But because many of the changes have been in the works for a long time the costs, hopefully, should be minimal.”