Heeding the Signs

If you take the same commute to work every day—or drive any familiar route to a frequent destination—you may tend to overlook the road signs that guide your way. But ignore them at your peril: Data from the Insurance Information Institute suggests that failure to obey signs (and to consistently follow the rules they promote) may have contributed to as many as one-third of fatal vehicle crashes in 2015.

Because signs are so critical for public safety, having a strong sign management program with up-to-date inventory data is an important part of a transportation agency’s asset management efforts. Yet many agencies still follow the historical process of collecting sign data in spreadsheets, making it difficult to preserve data integrity and to use the data effectively to maintain an inventory of properly placed, well-functioning signs.

A modern sign management system can help agencies not only improve public safety but also improve business processes by identifying maintenance strategies to get optimal value from sign assets—and from the teams that keep those assets in good repair. In addition, a sign management system can significantly improve how agencies meet Federal Highway Agency (FHWA) standards for sign retroreflectivity, a key indicator of the asset’s visibility and, therefore, its ability to promote safety.

Maintaining Retroreflectivity

In 2011, FHWA established compliance standards that require agencies to maintain a list of all the highway signs under their jurisdiction, obtain a retroreflectivity score for each sign, and take actions to ensure that all signs meet minimum retroreflectivity levels. Since poor retroreflectivity can significantly compromise safety (because the observer is not able to see the information on the sign), FHWA also required agencies to replace—by 2018—all street name signs or overhead guide signs that had failing retroreflectivity scores.

For agencies that traditionally store sign data in spreadsheets, searching the data for retroreflectivity scores and maintaining a history is a tedious process, as an agency’s inventory usually includes 200,000 to 1,000,000 signs, and the typical life of a sign is about 12 years. Using spreadsheets, there is no easy way to identify the current condition and the historical maintenance on a sign, perform analysis for planning, and view the signs on a map. This is a big problem because asset management best practices have shown that maintenance costs increase unnecessarily if signs are replaced too early; if replaced too late, public safety may be compromised.

Three main ways to maintain proper retroreflectivity of signs include:

  1. Replacement over a corridor
  2. Replacement over a defined period of time
  3. Replacement at a later time, based on inspection results.

Managing Sign Maintenance

Road sign maintenance requires effective tracking mechanisms to identify sign locations and issues and to fix issues within budget constraints. To follow industry best practices, an effective sign management system should align with the following FHWA recommendations:

  1. Inventory: Keep a database of all the signs in the road network
  2. Inspection: Track scheduled inspections for signs
  3. Preventive Maintenance: Perform work activities to ensure that signs reach their full-service life
  4. Repair and Replacement: Establish a program and process for either repairing or replacing non-functional signs
  5. Reporting and Recordkeeping: Maintain a process for keeping records of all maintenance activities.

The recommendations presented above are the minimum requirements to track signs throughout their lifecycle. Commercial off-the-shelf software—especially one with integrated mapping capabilities—can significantly improve these business processes. However, to get the most value from your sign management system, you need to integrate it with your other backend systems.

Integrating with Other Systems

Examples of the types of system integration that can help you get the most out of your sign management system include:

  1. Manufacturing: If your agency manufactures signs, interfacing with the manufacturing system is an effective way to streamline the management of both materials and manufactured signs by coordinating workflows.
  2. Warehouse Inventory and Transfer: To fulfill sign installation and replacement requests, you need to identify the various quantities of signs on hand and what needs to be ordered or manufactured. Although the transfer process—like manufacturing—falls under inventory management, it has its own business process. Integrating your sign management system with your warehouse inventory and transfer system helps you improve process efficiency.
  3. Leasing: Business advertising is featured on Tourist-Oriented Directional Signs (TODS). These spaces are usually leased. Integrating your sign management system with your leasing system enables more effective tracking of these leased assets.
  4. Financial and Other Systems: Financial system integrations are required for more effective management of sign leasing, manufacturing, warehouse inventory, and transfer. Integrations with other systems can provide additional benefits. For example, integrating with a real estate management system enables sharing information on available spaces and requests for new signs.

Saving Money, Saving Lives

Sign management has now evolved as its own discipline, often with its own assigned budget, rather than as part of the larger roadway maintenance budget. With millions of dollars of asset value invested in signs, effectively managing them over their lifecycle can help an agency save significantly on maintenance costs over time, while increasing transportation safety for the public.

Learn More

For information about AgileAssets sign management solutions, or for help with your other asset management needs, contact us.


Federal Highway Administration, U.S. Department of Transportation. (2009). Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices.

McGee, H. W. (2010). Maintenance of Sign and Sign Supports (Report FHWA-SA-09-025).

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