Updated road signs will reflect in the dark

By Errol Castens/NEMS Daily Journal

In the next two years, nighttime drivers may have an easier time finding their way.
The Federal Highway Administration will require road signs nationwide by 2012 to be “retroflective,” meaning towns and counties will have to replace the non-reflective markers they bought before 2008.
On retroflective surfaces, “the light travels back parallel to the way the light came in,” explained Wes Dean, state traffic engineer for the Mississippi Department of Transportation.
For motorists, the difference is that headlights can make signs legible at night in plenty of time to respond – unlike many bought before 2008.
“There are a lot of signs that you can’t see until you’re right on them to be able to read them,” said Jerry Haynie, road manager for Lafayette County. “If the numbers and arrows jump out at you, that’s the important thing.”
Not only is the nighttime illegibility of older signs an inconvenience to motorists, it indirectly they can cause wrecks. One near-miss resulted last week when a van’s driver, apparently having missed his turnoff onto a county road because of a barely visible road number sign, tried to do a U-turn on a state highway and ended up blocking traffic in both directions.
One of the biggest challenges for local governments will be budgeting the changeover.
“It’s an unfunded mandate,” MDOT’s Dean noted. “It’s a big issue – but even more so for the counties and cities than for MDOT. We’ve known it was coming and have been putting it into place already.”
Some local governments, however, have also been planning ahead.
“We’re in the process of compiling a list of how many signs we have in the county, how many are retroflective and how many are not,” Haynie said.
Lee County Road Manager Tim Allred said his crews have already upgraded about 55 percent of the county’s signs.
“This is just a sheer guess, but I’d say (it will cost) probably $25,000 to $30,000 to finish changing those out,” he said. “Each sign has different prices, but everybody here in my county is curious about what you spend and how you spend it.”
While costs will be concentrated during the four-year transition, the signs will not be a one-time expenditure. In addition to the usual loss by vandalism and accidents, officials have to plan for replacement after sun exposure diminishes any given sign’s reflectivity below specified levels.
“I’d guess it’ll last about six years if it faces east or west,” Allred said. “By Jan. 1, 2012, we have to have all those replaced and be on a program that will have all the signs changed out, dated on the back, and scheduled for replacement.”
Contact Errol Castens at (662) 281-1069 or errol.castens@djournal.com.