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Signs Of Ye Olde Times: Worn Out Highway Signs Are An Issue For Drivers And Officials


Highway signs are easy to take for granted. You drive by one and don't think twice about it. Well, it turns out it takes a lot to maintain them and sometimes that isn't even enough. As Sam Turken of member station WHRV reports, fading interstate signs are becoming a problem nationwide.

SAM TURKEN, BYLINE: In southeast Virginia, it can be really hard to see highway signs. The big green ones with white letters and numbers? A lot of them no longer reflect at night, almost like they're wearing out.

I'm out 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're right under it. 50 feet away, nothing.

Google Maps helps to an extent, but the signs still make it hard to know which exit is which. In a short stretch on this highway, there are about five that are hard to read.

DAVID FALKINSON: Those signs are terrible. I mean, the signage in the whole area is really bad.

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

FALKINSON: If it wasn't for Google telling me where to go half the time, I'd probably get lost.

TURKEN: Do you ever miss exits because of those worn-down signs?

FALKINSON: I have a couple of times, actually.

TURKEN: Like the day when he was going to the movie theater.

FALKINSON: And there's this one division where it divides into three roads. And I was supposed to go left, but it was unclear which road was which. So I went straight. Then it added almost 10 minutes to my drive.

TURKEN: Falkinson says the signs aren't just annoying. He holds his eight-month-old daughter while we talk.

Do you feel like it's dangerous driving with her?

FALKINSON: Yes, it's definitely dangerous.

TURKEN: It's not just a Virginia problem. Other states have aging traffic signs. Nathan Smith is with the American Traffic Safety Services Association.

NATHAN SMITH: A faded traffic sign, highway sign, interstate sign - it's a daily reminder about how we have unmet needs in this country for infrastructure.

TURKEN: President Biden is expected to unveil a sweeping plan soon to rebuild transportation networks nationwide. Smith says keeping highway signage up to date takes effort. New signs are manufactured to be more reflective and brighter than older versions. Still, they only last about 15 years. Sunlight causes them to fade, so states constantly have to replace signs that reach their lifespan. Josephine Tayse is with Minnesota's Department of Transportation.

JOSEPHINE TAYSE: We have about 400,000 sign panels that we're responsible for. So if you divide that by 15, that's approximately how many we do per year. I guess - I don't know that math off the top my head.

TURKEN: Twenty-six thousand signs. And that's no simple process. There's design, approval, delivery. Finally, installation can mean bringing in cranes and closing down roads. In southeast Virginia, workers are in the process of swapping out about 300 fading signs. That's a relief for Jacy Paloma, a lab scientist at a local hospital. She says in the past, the hard-to-read signs have made her late for work.

JACY PALOMA: This area has a lot of tourist and military people from out of town. They don't know where they're going. I just started wearing glasses, too. So it can be a little frustrating. I miss a lot of exits sometimes (laughter). I'm not very directionally coordinated.

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

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

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

After living in North Carolina the past four years, Miami native Sam Turken is back in the city he’s always called home.