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Making a Federal Case

Claim:   Federal regulations require states to upgrade all street name signs to use mixed case lettering.

MIXTURE OF TRUE AND FALSE INFORMATION

Examples:   [Collected via e-mail, October 2010]

A friend heard this on the radio today. It was reported that there will be a federal mandate in 2012 that street signs must have a capital letter only at the beginning and the rest of the street sign must be in lower case. He said the report stated that baby boomers were apparently having a difficult time reading the signs printed in all caps. I find this idea a little preposterous. He indicated that it would cost Milwaukee, WI over a million $ to make the change. it was also reported that there would be no federal grants available to assist in paying for the new signage. Can this possibly be true?
 

Is there nothing more important for the federal government to worry about than street signs? They have mandated... without any funding... that all municipalities change traffic signs to a combination of upper and lower case letters... have we not been able to read our signs until now? Have we been eternally lost?? Government needs to get a life ...vote
 

I heard a gentleman telling a friend that President Obama was in New York City and didn't like the fact that the street signs were spelled in all caps. He requested that Mayor Bloomberg change ALL the streets signs so they only began with a capital letter and he agreed, to the tune of $1mil+.
 

The conversation at the local scrap yard was about a mandate either Federal or Washington State requiring the change of all the street signs to ones that contain upper and lower case lettering (I guess most have all upper case lettering). This seemed so absurd I did not believe it but the scrap recyclers were excited about the huge amount of aluminum scrap that would be coming. Given the huge budget shortfalls and proposed cutbacks by most everyone, I find it offensive that someone is even payed to think about the font of the street signs. I sure hope this is just a rumor.
 

Origins:   In October 2010, news outlets reported on new federal regulations regarding street and road signs that would be taking effect before the end of the decade, as exemplified by the following excerpt from the USA Today national newspaper:
In a nod to the fading eyesight of the nation's growing number of aging Baby Boomers, the federal government is requiring communities around the USA to change street name signs from all capital letters to a combination of capital and lowercase letters. The government says that makes them easier to read.

Cash-starved localities also will have to dig deep for new, more reflective traffic signs to make them easier to see at night, especially by older drivers.

Under Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) regulations, communities have until 2015 to improve the nighttime visibility of roadside signs — such as stop, yield and railroad crossing signs. The issue is how well a sign redirects light from an automobile's headlights back toward the vehicle. Signs that fail to meet minimum standards must be replaced. Communities will be allowed to change the street name signs as they wear out.
Unfortunately, the wording of some of these articles left readers unclear about exactly what the new federal regulations entail, leading to (mistaken) claims that officials in every state must upgrade all their street signs to used mixed case lettering by the year 2015.

One of the new Federal Highway Administration regulations, as outlined in the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD), addresses the retroreflectivity of traffic signs:
For many years vehicle operators and the transportation industry have realized the importance of legible traffic signs and quality pavement markings for the purpose of highway safety and economical traffic flow, especially in low-light conditions. Light from a vehicle's headlights striking retroreflective traffic control devices bounces back to the driver's eyes allowing them to more easily see the road. Therefore, most traffic control devices are covered with retroreflective materials. These include transparent decals with embedded microprismatic reflectors for traffic signs and paint that has small sunken glass beads in the pavement markings.

Retroreflectivity is used to allow drivers to more easily see vital traffic control devices in nighttime and low-light conditions.
The FHWA regulations require that states must upgrade post-mounted guide signs (e.g., stop signs, speed limit signs, pedestrian crossing signs) to meet minimum retroreflectivity standards by 2015. States must also upgrade street name signs and overhead guide signs to meet minimum retroreflectivity requirements by 2018.

A second — and distinctly different — FHWA regulation requires that newly-installed street name signs (or replacements for existing street name signs) must use a combination of upper and lower case letters rather than all upper case (i.e., capital) letters. Signs executed in predominantly lower case letters are
generally easier to comprehend than signs written in all upper case letters (because the shapes of lower case letters have greater distinctiveness between them), so the new lettering requirements should make road signs easier for drivers (particularly older motorists) to read.

The conflation of regulations regarding these two new types of standards for signage — retroreflectivity and mixed case lettering — has created the impression that all states must change every street name sign to used mixed case lettering by the year 2015 (at considerable cost to those states). This impression is false. The only connection between these two standards is that if states have to replace some of their street name signs to meet the new retroreflectivity standards (which they are required to do by 2018), then those replacement signs must use mixed case lettering. Otherwise, there is currently no requirement that states remove and replace street name signs which use only upper case lettering — such signs may remain in place until they reach the end of their service lives.

Last updated:   14 November 2010

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Sources:

    Copeland, Larry.   "ALL CAPS? Not OK on Road Signs, Federal Government Says."
    USA Today.   21 October 2010