Signs, signs everywhere a sign
Protecting people everywhere they travel
"Signs, signs everywhere a sign..." These famous words, written by Les Emmerson for the Canadian rock band Five Man Electrical Band, were popularized in the early 1970's during a time of social and political changes. Although these lyrics express frustration over a series of signs, today's signs have a very important reason for their existence...to protect public health and safety.
Cattaraugus County Department of Public Works (DPW) has been operating its own Sign Shop since the late 1930's. While there have been many changes over the years, the biggest change has to be that signs are no longer hand-painted on wood. Today's signs require high intensity reflectivity for improved safety and visual clarity. DPW's Sign Shop is designed with specific equipment to increase its usefulness, productivity, and operational effectiveness.
"We can do almost everything in-house, which saves time, money, and gets the sign out in the field sooner to protect the traveling public," said Mark Loveless, Sign Technician.
The Sign Shop team consists of a sign technician, senior traffic sign maintainer, and two traffic sign maintainers. This team maintains an inventory of 10,000 signs, and will make and install almost 500 signs during construction season.
"This team is capable of taking an order, making the sign, and placing it within a 24-hour period, depending on its location," said Senior Traffic Sign Maintainer Bob Learn.
Besides the County, signs are also made for other counties, municipalities, New York State Department of Transportation, and police, fire and school districts.
Traffic control in New York State is governed by numerous requirements from the following sources: Federal Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD); New York State Supplement to the Federal MUTCD; New York State Highway Law; New York State Vehicle and Traffic Law; and local laws and ordinances. Creating signs that follow all these rules and regulations, and provide for and promote the safe and orderly flow of traffic is not an easy task. The requirements must be applied each time a sign is requested. This information is then used to determine size, color, shape, reflectivity, and where the sign must be located.
"There are two major challenges that we must deal with on a regular basis," said Loveless. "The first is in the interpretation and application of these regulations when producing and placing signs. The Sign Shop team takes a methodical and conservative approach in everything we do." The next issue is signs are seen as the ultimate solution to traffic control issues, such as speeding. "Signs only work when followed, they are not self-enforcing," said Loveless. "The influence of a sign is limited to the willingness of people to read them and comply."
"Over-signing is never an option for controlling traffic, nor is it a best practice to place undue inconvenience on the traveling public," said Learn. "A sign is placed to provide a uniform and easily understood message that allows drivers to make the proper choices for their safety." Misuse of signs for traffic control can lead to confusion, frustration and create unsafe conditions.
The process for making any sign starts with a request and a location selection. The team will then make sure that this sign will not conflict with any other sign in that location. A review of regulatory documents will be conducted for compliance, sign reflectivity, and placement.
A team member will contact Dig Safely New York to prevent any damage to underground pipes or lines prior to driving in the sign post. Sign posts are designed to yield on impact to avoid any injury to the driver. Special bolts are used to prevent tampering and theft.
"When disasters hit, such as the Gowanda Flood in 2009, this department is the first place other agencies turn for help," said Loveless. "We are fortunate to have the capability to produce signs in-house faster than they can be obtained from outside sources, and generally at a lower cost."
Loveless is considered a resource on the State and Federal level in dealing with the ever-changing world of traffic control. His knowledge of traffic control rules and regulations have been sought by other municipalities, as well as Cornell's Local Roads Program.
The team takes pride in everything they do, especially in the creation of E911 Signs. These signs, which are color-coded by fire district, were created to assist emergency personnel in locating those in need of assistance. This is even more important when it's a life or death situation. E911 Signs have helped improve response times in Cattaraugus County.
The team also implemented its own "recycling program." Instead of discarding an old sign, it is recycled with a new face using the old substrate. A typical used highway sign can be upgraded to "as new" condition, which reduces costs and makes tax dollars go further.
"A few years ago, the sign shop in Hamburg, New York, which was operated by New York State Department of Transportation, was closed," said Loveless. "Those municipalities and agencies that depended on those services now come to us for their signage needs. After all, that's why we are here...to protect public health and safety."
Loveless enjoys the challenge of using his knowledge and experience regarding signs to protect the traveling public. Learn reiterates Loveless' sentiment. "I take pride in looking back at an area where we just upgraded it. There is even more satisfaction when you get to see the first person drive through that area after it's been reopened."
Sign Maintainer Jim Frentz likes the variety that the work involves. "Everyday is different. That's what makes it so enjoyable. And, meeting the public when you're out on a job is a plus. In the end, it's all about protecting the traveling public."
Signs have come a long way from the days of hand-painting on wood. Today, there are reflectivity standards that provide drivers better visibility during the day or night, and in inclement weather. Reflectivity standards have five different grades and include, from highest to lowest reflection: Diamond Grade Fluorescent, Diamond Grade(r), High Intensity Prismatic, Standard High Intensity, and Engineering Grade. Engineering Grade is used for parking and other signs where reflectivity is not as important for safety.
Next time you see a sign; don't think of those 1970's lyrics. Instead, think of the Cattaraugus County' Sign Shop whose mission is to make sure you have a safe and uneventful journey.