Worn road signs are a problem for drivers and officials: NPR

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These green road signs on the highways are having more and more problems. The older signs are almost invisible at night and this creates problems for drivers and headaches for state transportation officials.



AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Road signs are easy to take for granted. You drive by one and don’t think twice. Well, it turns out that it takes a lot to maintain them and sometimes that’s not even enough. As Sam Turken of member station WHRV (ph) reports, discoloration of interstate signs is becoming a problem nationwide.

SAM TURKEN, BYLINE: In Southeast Virginia, it can be very difficult to see road signs. The big greens with white letters and numbers? Many of them no longer reflect at night, almost as if they are wearing out.

I’m here driving from Norfolk to Virginia Beach on I-264 East. Ah, here’s one. You can only see a few letters on the sign when you are right below it. 50 meters further, nothing.

Google Maps helps to a certain extent, but the signs always make it difficult to know which exit is which. In a short stretch of this highway, there are about five that are difficult to read.

DAVID FALKINSON: These signs are terrible. I mean, the signage all over the area is really bad.

TURKEN: David Falkinson lives in Norfolk. He’s from the Boston area, says the signs there can be confusing as well, but he thinks the ones in Virginia are worse.

FALKINSON: If Google didn’t tell me where to go half the time, I’d probably get lost.

TURKEN: Do you sometimes miss exits because of those worn panels?

FALKINSON: I have a couple of times, actually.

TURKEN: Like the day he went to the movies.

FALKINSON: And there’s this one division where it splits into three roads. And I had to go left, but we didn’t know which road was which. So I went straight. Then it added almost 10 minutes to my commute.

TURKEN: Falkinson says the signs aren’t just boring. He holds his eight month old daughter in his arms as we speak.

Do you think it’s dangerous to drive with it?

FALKINSON: Yeah, it’s definitely dangerous.

TURKEN: It’s not just Virginia’s problem. Other states have aging road signs. Nathan Smith is a member of the American Traffic Safety Services Association.

NATHAN SMITH: A faded road sign, a road sign, an interstate sign – it’s a daily reminder of how we have unmet infrastructure needs in this country.

TURKEN: President Biden is expected to unveil a broad plan soon to rebuild transportation networks nationwide. Smith says updating road signs takes effort. The new panels are made to be more reflective and brighter than the older versions. However, they only last about fifteen years. Sunlight causes them to fade, so states must constantly replace signs that are reaching their lifespan. Josephine Tayse works at the Minnesota Department of Transportation.

JOSEPHINE TAYSE: We have about 400,000 road signs that we are responsible for. So if you divide that by 15, that’s roughly how much we make per year. I guess – I don’t know this math by heart.

TURKEN Twenty-six thousand signs. And it is not a simple process. There is the design, the approval, the delivery. Finally, installation can mean installing cranes and closing roads. In Southeast Virginia, workers are exchanging about 300 discolored signs. It’s a relief for Jacy Paloma, a lab scientist at a local hospital. She says in the past, hard-to-read signs have made her late for work.

JACY PALOMA: This area has a lot of tourists and military from out of town. They don’t know where they are going. I just started to wear glasses too. So it can be a bit frustrating. I miss a lot of outings sometimes (laughs). I am not very coordinated.

TURKEN: Paloma says she’s ready for the new panels to make driving easier, at least when it’s not raining.

For NPR News, I’m Sam Turken in Norfolk.

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