CORVALLIS — If you see a couple of old duffers tooling around the countryside at night in a late-model SUV, peering at road signs, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re lost.
They might be sign inspectors.
In an effort to meet federal safety mandates, Benton County employs a part-time crew of retired transportation workers to cruise rural byways after dark, checking road signs for legibility, general upkeep and retroreflectivity — a traffic engineer’s persnickety term for how well they show up in your headlights.
It’s important work. According to U.S. Department of Transportation statistics, motor vehicle accidents are the leading cause of death for Americans under the age of 35. About half of all traffic fatalities occur at night, and 57 percent — more than 19,000 deaths a year — happen on rural roads.
In an effort to bring those numbers down, the Federal Highway Administration issued new rules in 2009, when it published a major revision of the Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices.
Among other things, the 850-page tome set new standards for retroreflectivity and readability — standards that states, counties and cities would be required to meet within a specified timetable or face the loss of federal highway funds.
“It’s kind of a moving target,” Benton County Public Works Director Roger Irvin said. “They’re always coming up with new stuff.”
After a national outcry from harried state and local officials, the deadlines were relaxed last year. But all those outdated signs still need to be upgraded as they wear out, and that’s a major undertaking.
There are a little over 6,000 signs in the Benton County road system, and every year a certain number need to be replaced due to normal wear and tear. Others are damaged in storms, knocked over in car crashes, spray-painted, shot up or stolen. (The sign for Rambo Lane, near Alpine, was swiped and replaced five or six times before the name was changed to Rainbow as a cost-cutting measure.)
The county road budget includes about $175,000 a year for making, maintaining, inspecting and replacing signs. But the new standards have upped the cost, and the feds have not provided any financial assistance. As a result, the number of signs that can be replaced has gone down.
“We used to do about 1,000 signs a year,” said Kent Mahler, the county’s road maintenance manager. “Now we’re doing 700 to 750 signs with the same amount of money.”
There are a number of cost factors involved, starting with improved reflective material.
Two types of vinyl coatings are available. The first, called high-intensity prismatic, is five times brighter than the old standard, known as engineer-grade. It also lasts a little longer.
Another option, called diamond grade, has glass beads embedded in a clear film over the reflective vinyl, making it five to seven times brighter than high-intensity prismatic. With luck, it will last 10 to 12 years, compared with 5 to 7 years for engineer grade and up to 10 years for high-intensity.
“Those really glow at night,” Mahler said. “They really shoot light back at you.”
But the new coatings don’t come cheap: $1.40 a square foot for high-intensity prismatic and $3 for diamond grade.
Of course, new signs require new lettering, which has to be printed out and hand-applied at the county sign shop.
Sometimes, signs can be recycled by stripping off the vinyl coating and pressure-washing the old sign blank. But other times, new blanks have to be fabricated from heavy-gauge aluminum.
The new regulations are also making some signs bigger.
One of the revisions to the Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices concerned the lettering on street signs. Under the old rules, the letters had to be 4 inches high. Now they have to be 6 inches high — and instead of all capitals, street names must now be rendered in upper- and lowercase letters.
“If you’ve got a P or a G with a tail on it, you need a larger blank,” points out Gary Champion, the county’s chief sign fabricator.
Taller and wider blanks can create a ripple effect. Additional regulations require signs to be a certain height above the ground and a certain distance from the edge of the road, which means some posts have had to be replaced or relocated.
And then there are the unforeseen consequences, such as increased wind resistance.
“You’ll go out after a windstorm and the sign will be leaning over because it’s got so much surface area,” said Dave Hannahs, a retired county road worker who still helps out on a part-time basis.
But rules are rules, and even without a firm deadline, local jurisdictions are required to ensure that all their older road signs are brought up to the new standards as they wear out.
That’s where the inspection program comes in.
To make sure signs meet visibility requirements, they can be tested with a retroreflectometer, a high-tech gizmo that provides extremely accurate measurements — but that can also cost anywhere from $10,000 to $30,000.
Like many local governments, Benton County has opted for a visual inspection program instead. Even that, however, has to be done by the book.
In order to meet Federal Highway Administration requirements, the inspection must be conducted at night, using a model year 2000 or newer pickup or sport utility vehicle with its headlights set on low beam.
The driver can be any age, but the inspector must be at least 60 — presumably to be sure the signs are visible to older eyes — which is why Benton County relies on retirees to do the work.
“It’s fascinating to us every time we find a new regulation or a new sign (requirement),” Mahler said. “It never seems to quit.”
Irvin said he understands the need for a standardized system of traffic signs to make the nation’s roads safer. And the new retroreflectivity rules make sense, given a population that is getting older and driving faster at the same time.
“The opposite thing would be everybody could just slow down and pay more attention,” he added. “But that’s not in the cards.”