Tag Archives: retroreflectivity

How Better Sign Management Could Save Minnesota Millions

Replacing traffic signs at the right time is an important science.

Waiting too long can endanger lives and expose an agency to a lawsuit. But replacing traffic signs prematurely could cost a single city tens of thousands of dollars per year.

If fully implemented, new recommendations developed by MnDOT and the Local Road Research Board (LRRB) could save public agencies as much as $41 million over three years by helping them better manage their signs and meet new federal requirements on retroreflectivity without replacing signs prematurely. Here’s how:

Reducing Inventories

At a purchase price of $150 to $250 a piece, plus $20 per year for maintenance, the cost of an unnecessary traffic sign adds up. (Maintenance costs involve replacing signs that have been vandalized, knocked down, or that no longer meet required levels of retroreflectivity.)

In a case study of townships in Stevens County, Minnesota, researcher Howard Preston found that nearly a third of traffic signs were not required and served no useful purpose. The average township has 180 signs, which results in an annual maintenance cost of $3,600. The average county has 10,000 signs — an annual maintenance cost of $200,000.

Public agencies could save a collective $26 million* just by removing unnecessary or redundant signs from the field, Preston said. A traffic sign maintenance handbook developed by the LRRB and MnDOT guides agencies through that process.

Longer  Lives

Traffic signs have more life in them than the typical 12-year manufacturer’s warranty, Preston said. But how often agencies replace them varies throughout the state.

Whereas small municipalities may replace signs on an individual basis through spot-checking for retroflectivity, MnDOT has a schedule. Each of the agency’s 400,000 signs is replaced within 18 years of installation.

Preston found that MnDOT could safely extend the service life of its signs to 20 years, which would save an estimated $1.3 million within the first few years of implementation.

Assuming (in lieu of a research-backed benchmark) that local municipalities would likely start replacing signs around the 15-year mark to ensure compliance with the federal law, Preston estimates that townships, cities and counties could avoid a collective $6 million in unnecessary costs per year just by adhering to the minimum 20-year replacement schedule recommended by the study.

Agencies are required by federal law to have a method in place for ensuring that signs maintain adequate retroreflectivity. A replacement schedule based on science is one way; regular physical inspection is another.

Researchers, who consulted other state’s studies and also examined signs in the field, determined that the life of the modern sign in Minnesota is at least 20 years.

It’s possible that traffic signs actually retain their retroreflectivity for 30 years or more, but further study is needed since sheeting materials on today’s traffic signs haven’t been deployed long enough to know, researchers say.

A test deck at the MnROAD facility will track the condition of Minnesota signs over the next decades — and perhaps push the  recommended replacement cycle longer.

*This figure  and the $41 million total above account for cost savings calculated over an initial, three-year period. Ongoing cost savings thereafter may be different, according to Preston.

Related Resources

Sign Maintenance Management Handbook (PDF, 13 MB, 119 pages)

Traffic Sign Life Expectancy study

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

Traffic Sign Life Expectancy study – Technical Summary (PDF, 1 MB, 2 pages); Final Report (PDF, 2 MB, 45 pages)