What’s the life of a sign?

Traffic signs provide important information to drivers, and are a critical component of traffic safety. In order to be effective, their visibility and readability must be maintained under both day and night conditions.

Key to signs’ effectiveness is a quality known as retroreflectivity — the ability for signs to bounce light back toward a driver’s eyes, making them appear brighter and easier to read.  Retroreflectivity deteriorates with time, so transportation agencies need to actively maintain their signs.

A research project funded by the Local Road Research Board is developing a guide to help cities and counties better manage their signs, and also to meet a new Federal Highway Administration retroreflectivity management requirement while getting the lowest life-cycle costs.

Cities and counties have until June to establish a sign assessment or management method that will maintain minimum levels of sign retroreflectivity.

“Right now there’s a mixture of different management methods, with very little guidance as to what’s appropriate for your agency based on the signs you have and your labor force and equipment,” said Matt Lebens, a MnDOT research project engineer.

Since 1993, the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices has included guidelines for minimum retroreflectivity of pavement markings and signs. The standards are meant to ensure that drivers, especially the growing population of elderly drivers, are able to detect, comprehend and react to traffic signs. The LRRB project is designed to help fill certain knowledge gaps in this area.

Measuring retroreflectivity

Possible methods for ensuring retroflectivity include night-time inspection; use of a reflectometer; spot-checking a sampling of signs that are the same age; or blanket replacement of signs once they reach a certain age.

Although the retroreflectivity of a sign is  guaranteed by its manufacturer to last a certain number of years, it commonly lasts much longer.

“Currently, we don’t have expected sign life guidance for agencies to use. Through this project, we are establishing a control deck for sign sheeting used in the state, and an expert panel will make recommendations on expected sign life ranges,” Lebens said.

Researchers reviewed retro-reflectivity studies from other states and also measured the retro-reflectivity of signs out in the field across Minnesota using a retroreflectometer. As part of this project, MnDOT is providing training on the retroreflectometer and will also make it available for loan to local municipalities. (Watch a video demonstration.)

At MnDOT’s MnROAD site,  control decks contain dozens of signs. In addition to measuring retroreflectivity, the MnDOT Materials lab is monitoring color fade, which has been a larger issue in Minnesota.

“By getting better data as to the real life in-field life span of the signs, agencies will have a more realistic and better informed value for sign life expectancy, as well as potentially reducing costs,” said MnDOT Senior Engineer Mark Vizecky.

Expected life

There’s been no definitive studies to date as to what the life of a sign is, said lead project investigator Howard Preston of CH2M Hill, but the research so far shows it is in well excess of manufacturer warranties.

Cities and counties will be advised to pick an expected sign life that goes beyond the warranty – and then stay tuned.

“The notion is to watch these signs until they fail,” Preston said. “The sheeting material is better than it used to be. The failure might be 20 or 30 years out.”

There are two basic types of reflective sheeting material: beaded and prismatic.

Although beaded is guaranteed to last 10 years, researchers anticipate a retroreflectivity life of between 12 and 20 years old.

For the prismatic material – which has a 12-year warranty – the life cycle is anticipated to be 20 to 30 years.

“Nobody knows for sure, because nobody has actually followed this material to failure in a controlled condition,” Preston said. “On the road, there are so many variables: vandalism, knock-downs, etc.”

 

A test deck at MnROAD.
Researchers look at the test deck at MnROAD. The study panel includes city and county engineers.
Resources

Final report – Traffic Sign Life Expectancy (PDF, 2 MB, 45pages)

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