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FHWA Highway Safety Programs

I. Importance of Maintaining the Sign Face

This handbook is intended to help maintenance workers understand the importance of well-maintained signs and provide information that will help them in accomplishing that task. Well-maintained signs are important to drivers in making good decisions.

Many signs require or advise the drivers to take specific actions. These signs must be clean, legible, used correctly and in good condition to command the respect of a driver.

There are three major kinds of signs that provide the driver with the "Rules of the Road" and provide guidance and information for efficient traffic flow.

  • Regulatory
  • Warning
  • Guide

There are also special signs for use in work zones or to direct people to special events, but they all fit into these three categories.

General information

Doing a good job of maintaining regulatory and warning signs makes the road safer for all drivers. You should keep in mind that an accident can occur because of a missing or unreadable sign. Good sign maintenance will improve traffic safety, reduce the chances of a lawsuit against the community, and increase traffic capacity. Remember "TRAFFIC SIGNS MUST HAVE A PURPOSE"- they must:

  • Fulfill a need.
  • Command attention and respect.
  • Convey a clear, understandable message.
  • Provide enough time for the driver to respond correctly.

Missing or damaged signs can be identified through accident reporting procedures established with the police, ongoing police observations, field reviews (particularly after wind and ice storms), reports from citizens or observations of employees during working hours, in travel to and from work, or at any other time (day or night).

Regulatory signs

Regulatory signs are the most important to the driver because they represent the laws and regulations that are enforceable. They usually require a driver to take a specific action, such as STOP, but can also deny the driver right of entry, such as DO NOT ENTER. Failure to respond to a regulatory sign can result in or contribute to a severe accident. This can occur when a driver doesn't see a regulatory sign or sees the sign too late and makes an erratic movement. Missing, damaged, or ineffective regulatory signs constitute a potential hazardous condition.

Common regulatory signs include STOP, YIELD, SPEED LIMIT, DO NOT ENTER, DO NOT PASS, ONE WAY, and WRONG WAY.

"Graphic: Regulatory Signs: STOP, NO U-TURN, ONE WAY STREET"

Damaged or missing regulatory signs (especially STOP, YIELD, DO NOT ENTER, ONE WAY and WRONG WAY signs) should be replaced or repaired as soon as possible. Generally, these signs should be replaced or repaired within hours of the agency having notice of them missing, down, or damaged. The date and time of notification should be documented, and should be followed up with the date and time the sign was repaired or replaced.

Warning Signs

Warning signs are the second most important group of signs because they are essential to the driver in making important decisions on how to operate the vehicle. Warning signs provide drivers with information that is necessary for controlling their vehicle. The proper use and maintenance of warning signs help prevent what is often called "OVER DRIVING THE ROAD" because warning signs provide drivers with advanced notice of potentially hazardous situations or conditions on the road ahead. Common warning signs include: STOP AHEAD, YIELD AHEAD, TURN, SHARP CURVE, RAILROAD CROSSING AHEAD and SPEED WARNING signs.


Damaged or missing warning signs (especially speed advisory plates, sharp curve signs, railroad crossing and stop ahead signs) should be replaced or repaired as soon as possible. Generally, a sign should be replaced as soon as it is identified as being lost or damaged. As a general rule, the situation should be corrected within three calendar days and the action taken, date and time documented.

Guide Signs

Guide signs are the third type of signs commonly used on highways and roads. Guide signs generally provide the driver with navigational information, which, while important, is not as important as the regulatory or warning signs. Guide signs are usually used to help a driver get to a particular location. The absence of a guide sign may not be noticed by a driver; however, there are situations where the absence of a guide sign, particularly a sign in a series of signs, can confuse a driver. Confused drivers are much more likely to contribute to accidents because they are "Not Focused on the Driving Task". Additionally, confused drivers often make erratic maneuvers, such as slowing or stopping in the roadway, backing down ramps, or making abrupt turns. Common guide signs include EXIT (for a location), REST AREA, STREET NAMES, AIRPORT.

"Guide Signs: Rest Area and Airport"

Replacement of damaged or missing guide signs should be done as soon as possible, but not take priority over replacement; or repairs of either regulatory or warning signs. Maintenance of guide signs requires your judgment; if you think the absence or damage to the guide sign could result in driver confusion, replace it as soon as possible. If you don't think the sign is critical, you should repair or replace it when practical, generally within two weeks. Again the action taken along with the date and time it was taken should be documented.

Work Zone and Special Signing

Work zone and special signing, such as those signs used at special events to direct traffic, must be maintained and used correctly to insure both the safety of the motorist and of the highway worker or persons working on or adjacent to the highway. Because both work zone and special signs often require drivers who are familiar with the road to do something differently, it is extremely important to use the correct signs and replace them immediately if damaged or lost. Because work zone signs are used for both scheduled and unscheduled activities, they must be in excellent condition. This is particularly true of their retro-reflective surface, which must be highly visible both day and night. Common work zone signs include FLAGGER AHEAD, MERGE, and SPEED

LIMIT signs.

"Limit Signs: Flagger Ahead, Merge, Speed Limit 50"

Damaged or missing work zone signs should be replaced immediately. Because they are often used in conjunction with existing signs, existing signs that are damaged or lost and are important to traffic safety and control should also be replaced immediately. It is a good practice to carry extra common work zone signs in maintenance vehicles. To protect the retro-reflectivity of the sign faces it is also important to handle and store the signs properly, and always remove or cover work zone signs when they are not needed.