THE wheels of government can turn slowly. But in the matter of upgrading and replacing America's road signs, putting off the deadline for carrying out new rules is a good idea.
A law passed 18 years ago required the U.S. Transportation Department to develop standards for how bright signs should be, as measured by their ability to reflect light back to its source - presumably an oncoming vehicle's headlights. It has taken years to develop the rules, but Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has reopened public comment in an attempt to delay or abolish them.
Although the regulations are well-intentioned, they appear to overreach by ordering the replacement of state and local road signs without providing the necessary money to pay for it.
The rules would require states and communities to adopt plans by next January that explain how they intend to meet the standards. They would have until 2015 to bring all post-mounted signs, except street nameplates, into compliance with the reflectivity standard.
By 2018, the signs would have to be brighter. As signs are replaced, those with all capital letters would have to be replaced with upper and lower-case lettering, which improves visibility. But no signs would have to be scrapped because of the lettering if they are reflective enough.
Among the 500-plus comments about the regulations, township officials in Illinois asked for more time to educate people about the changes, Officials in Missouri and elsewhere argued for phasing in the new signs as old signs need replacement, rather than under the proposed deadlines.
Despite the heavy federal hand, there are good reasons for adopting uniform standards that make road signs easier to see. A 65-year-old driver needs four times the amount of light to see at night as a 25-year-old. The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety projects that by 2025, one in every four drivers will be 65 or older.
Brighter signs help emergency personnel reach a scene more quickly. Although only a quarter of road travel occurs at night, that's when half of all traffic fatalities take place.
But forcing communities to replace signs that still have useful life is wasteful. As states and towns struggle to balance their budgets without raising taxes, this is no time for another unfunded federal mandate.
A sensible compromise would allow communities to install signs with the upgraded standards when it's time to replace a damaged, rusted, or worn-out sign - not when Washington says so. That's the kind of improvement plan the country can afford.