Signs Of The Times

Imagine traveling down a street or road that is completely void of signs. Difficult, isn’t it?

Take a look at old photographs and postcards of cities and towns from the turn of the 20th century and you will be amazed by the lack of signs. Compare that to traveling today where signs are like wallpaper, thanks to the automobile and greater mobility.

As park and recreation professionals, we can give customers a break from being bombarded with signs at every turn.

In thinking ahead to next year’s budget, now might be a good time to evaluate signage throughout the parks.

Is the sign readable? Is it effective? What is the sign’s condition? Is it really necessary?

Whether you have an in-house sign production shop or you have to out-source signs, and regardless of whether signs are wood, aluminum, composite, or recycled plastic, the costs continue to escalate at an unpredictable rate.

Combine these factors with issues such as budget cuts and upcoming changes in the requirement for sign retroreflectvity, and the need for effective signage is even more important.

Functional Roadway Signs

First, let’s examine the basic types of signs and the functions they serve. Roadway signs are covered in the federal Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices. Most--if not all--individual state manuals follow the federal manual closely.

There are three basic types of signs:

1. Regulatory--Notice of traffic laws or regulations (e.g., “Stop,” “Do Not Enter,” and speed-limit signs).

2. Warning--Notice of a situation that might not be readily apparent. These are typically yellow, diamond-shaped signs, such as “Curve in Road,” “Pedestrian Crossing,” and “Stop Ahead.”

3. Guide--Route designations, destinations, directions, distances, services, points of interest, and other geographical, recreational, or cultural information.

Examining Retroreflectivity

As of January 22, 2012, agencies will be required to develop and implement an assessment or management method designed to maintain sign-retroreflectivity at or above minimum levels. By January 22, 2015, agencies must replace all regulatory, warning, and guide signs that fail to meet the established minimum levels.

Lastly, all street-name signs that fail to meet the minimum levels must be replaced by January 22, 2018.

Although these requirements are mandatory for traffic signs only, it is important that park signs remain uniform with all other signs because they help users recognize and understand the signs easily.

Retroreflectivity is the ability of a sign to show the same shape and similar color by both day and night. In sign material, it is achieved with the use of microscopic glass beads or micro-prisms. A thorough explanation of the measurement of light and how reflective sheeting is graded would require a considerable amount of time and space.

Suffice it to say that replacement signs should be made of a minimum of high-intensity, ASTM Type III material. If this sounds confusing, you are not alone. Fortunately, your state department of transportation--as well as numerous sign suppliers--can help steer you in the right direction.

There are at least four methods of sign assessment for retroreflectivity:

1. Conducting a visual nighttime inspection by a trained sign inspector. Signs identified as below the minimum level should be replaced.

2. Measuring sign-retroreflectivity with the use of a retroreflectometer. This method can be very time-consuming, and the investment in equipment can be expensive.

3. Replacing signs based on their expected lifespan. For this method to work, the age and installation date of signs must be known. Replacement is based on expected sign life and an experience with degradation of retroreclectivity compared to minimum levels.

4. Replacing all signs at once. This method seems the most desirable since it eliminates guesswork, and ensures that all signs meet the new standards.

Coming Up With A Plan

Developing a sign-assessment and management plan helps with the budget, allowing for the plan to be phased in. Even if all signs are not replaced by the given deadlines, development and implementation of the plan will help satisfy the requirements.

Develop a sign-assessment and management program:

1. Take inventory of all signs, and put the information into a manual or computer database.

2. Create a program for scheduled inspections.

3. Develop a preventative-maintenance program to ensure that signs attain their full service life.

4. Develop a program and process for either repairing or replacing non-functional signs. This is important because it helps convey the message that you are not neglecting this aspect of maintenance and upkeep.

5. Keep accurate records of sign replacement and maintenance activities. Many agencies have started to apply stickers to the backs of signs with the installation date, agency name, and anti-vandalism warnings.

Do not overlook the need to inspect sign posts either. Ensure that the posts are positioned properly for lateral location, and that the signs are installed at the proper height. Refer to the Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices for additional information on proper positioning and installation. Check posts for decay as well. Some signs are quite heavy, and no one wants to see one topple over on a park patron.

Combing Through The Details

To help offset replacement costs as well as perform our jobs as stewards of parks, consider recycling old signs. This may be a particular money-saver as the price of aluminum continues to rise. There are vendors that will re-face old signs, provided that the blanks are in reasonably good condition. This alternative can result in a savings of up to 30 percent for some sign replacement, as well as give your agency a public-relations boost.

Before deciding whether to replace a sign, evaluate whether its message is worth repeating. In other words:

1. Does the sign fulfill a need?

2. Does it command attention?

3. Does it convey a clear and simple meaning?

Lastly, consider whether the size of the lettering on signs needs to be larger. As this society ages, some people are having a harder time reading signs. Make the senior population feel welcome in your parks with signs that are easier to read.

There is much to be said concerning the design, placement, and maintenance of signs. Although traffic signs are based on engineering judgment, all other signs may be based on the old adage that “less is more.” Is your agency prepared to meet these challenges?

Keith Kessler, CPRP, is a Signage Coordinator for the Cleveland Metroparks in Ohio. He can be reached via email at

Bryan BuchkoComment