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FHWA Highway Safety Programs


Timely detection of and response to maintenance needs are critical elements of an effective sign management system. This can be accomplished through periodic inspections of your signs to ensure they are still there, are needed, and are performing as intended both day and night.

Sometimes, defective signs can be identified through informal methods including:

  • Agency's employees — train all staff to look out for any signing deficiencies and report their finding.
  • Police patrols — establish a procedure whereby the police department notifies you of any sign problems.
  • Citizen inputs — do not overlook the importance of having citizens contact your agency when they observe problems; having a phone number on the sign dating sticker on the sign is recommended for this purpose.

When your agency receives notice of any sign deficiency from any of the above methods, it should be recorded and attended to within the appropriate priority for the type of sign involved.

In addition to the informal detection methods, the agency's formal inspection program should include:

  • Training of sign technicians — train all maintenance staff on what to look for and how to detect the various sign deficiencies.
  • Inspection schedule — inspect signs and supports routinely. All agencies should establish a policy for when inspections would occur, taking into consideration the level of importance for the signs, road type or traffic volumes.
  • Inspection procedures — the details of how an inspection is to be performed should be prescribed by the agency and used for training of its staff.
  • On-the-spot repair/replacement — many deficiencies may be resolved immediately; this requires that the maintenance technician has the necessary equipment, replacement parts, and signs on hand.
  • Preparation of work orders to correct problems — a system of work orders should be used for more time consuming repairs.
  • Recordkeeping — having a record of the inspection and repairs is critical to a successful sign management system and will be a valuable asset for your risk management program and tort defense.

A traffic sign can be found deficient for a variety of reasons (see Sign Inspection Checklist, on pg 28), including the degradation of night time visibility. There is now a standard in the MUTCD that requires that all agencies have a maintenance program in place by 2012 to maintain minimum levels of traffic sign retroreflectivity. Regulatory, warning and many guide signs will need to be replaced when they degrade below the established minimum levels of retroreflectivity presented in Chapter III. Your agency can meet these requirements by having an inspection program that will identify when signs need to be replaced.

There are alternative methods for inspecting signs for adequate retroreflectivity levels; they include:

  • Measuring the sign’s retroreflectivity level with a retroreflectometer.
  • Visually comparing the sign with a test panel that has a retroreflectivity level set at the minimum requirement.
  • Visually inspecting the sign and making a subjective judgment by a trained inspector as to its adequacy.

The first method is the most accurate, but it is time consuming and many agencies cannot afford the needed retroreflectometer, which costs about $10,000. However, you may consider borrowing one from your State DOT or LTAP. The second and third methods can be effective if the inspector is adequately trained. The inspection should be done at night. More details on these procedures can be found in Methods for Maintaining Traffic Sign Retroreflectivity, and the reader may want to contact their State LTAP/TTAP center for alternative inspection methods.

"Photo. A retroreflectometer is being used to test a sign."

A retroreflectometer can be used to determine if a sign meets or exceeds the minimum required retroreflectivity level.

"Photos. A grouping of signs is shown both at night and during the day. "

Remember, night reviews are still important. While a sign may appear adequate during the day, it may be non-visible at night.

Sign Inspection Checklist

  • Is the sign needed?
  • Is the sign missing?
  • Is the sign the correct one; is it in accordance with MUTCD?
  • Is the sign correctly positioned with respect to:
    • Lateral clearance?
    • Height above ground?
    • Longitudinal placement along road?
  • Is the sign visible, both day and night, at the required distance? (Indicate cause of problem if not [e.g. blocked by vegetation, other signs, etc.]).
  • Check the sign face for:
    • Condition (e.g. cracking, delamination, etc.)
    • Fading or discoloration
    • Contrast
    • Retroreflectivity
    • Damage or vandalized (graffiti, bullet holes, etc.)
  • Is sign support break-away or yielding? If not, are sign supports located outside the clear zone?