Dec 182010

Signs of the times: Feds call for bigger, brighter and mixed-case street signs to aid aging drivers

By Michael Scott, The Plain Dealer (Cleveland) with Brie Zeltner, 10/29/10, updated 11/10/

NVRC Note: This article was first brought to our attention by a Captioning listserv, where there has been some discussion about the quality of captions on television and whether it is easier for consumers to read captioning that is in all upper case or a mixture of upper and lower case.
The signs of the times are getting clearer as America’s baby boomers grow older.

Turns out, there’s good reason for that: The printed letters and numbers on the street signs that some of us squint to see have been steadily growing bigger and brighter.

That’s because cities, states and local communities have been responding to federal mandates and guidelines over the last decade or so aimed at making it easier for an aging driving population to see where they’re going, especially if they insist on going at night.

But highway officials are making a new case for more changes.

The Federal Highway Administration is now calling for communities to recast street name signs with “mixed-case lettering” (Superior Ave) because scientific studies say they’re easier for older folks to read on the fly than the all-uppercase signs (SUPERIOR AVE) which dominated the street signs of the 20th Century.

Researchers at Penn State’s Pennsylvania Transportation Institute, for example, reported in 1997 that the mixed-case signs are more easily recognizable than all-caps words of the same actual size. Other studies have reported that older drivers need lettering 30 percent larger than younger drivers

Cleveland is ahead of the game on this one. City street crews have been switching out all-caps signs in favor of larger print, highly-reflective and mixed-case street markers for about a decade as they wear out, said Robert Mavec, commissioner of traffic engineering.

The Federal Highway Administration in December 2009 issued a new directive — the hefty 816-page Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices — that requires municipalities and states to meet the new increased reflectivity guidelines by 2018.

It also mandates a changeover to mixed-case lettering on signs — but without a deadline — “so agencies won’t incur any additional costs,” FHA spokeswoman Cathy St. Denis said in an e-mail.

“The reason for these and other changes is to improve safety,” she said. “Signs that are easier to read will help us make roads and the people who drive on them safer.”

Mavec said the Cleveland has more than 500,000 road signs — including all signs like “Stop” and “Yield” and an undetermined number of street name signs.

– Thanks to NVRC, Fairfax (12/10/10)