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The Sign Height Fight

As profoessionals we care about this subject because of public safety issues. With professional studies that depict locations where short signs are appropriate and others where they are not, it's time to cast aside the opinions and start looking at the facts.

By Richard Crawford, United States Sign Council Legal Counsel

Take a read on to see what tools you need to bring to your next sign height fight.

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  • Local municipalities, in the 1990s, initiated a move toward mandating lower freestanding signs: lower sign height, so-called "monument" signs, and restricted height for pole-mounted signs along highways. Today, we see an increase in this activity related to down-sizing the height of freestanding sign structures.

    Why do we care about sign height? The simple answer is: because drivers have a hard time seeing low signs on many types of roads, and that in turn creates a Public Safety issue. As professionals, that's why we care about this subject. There are locations where low signs are appropriate, and others were they are not advisable.

    Can you see me now?
    Five years ago, when the USSC completed Sign Visibility: Effects of Traffic Characteristics and Mounting Height in conjunction with Penn State University, USSC had become increasingly concerned about the mandate for low monument signs only, particularly in districts with higher speed limits, congested traffic, and dense commercial development. The problem USSC was seeing was that low "monument" signs often could not be viewed for an adequate amount of time and distance. Thus, the Sign Height Study, or Sign "Blocking" Study was undertaken to scientifically examine the relationship between low mounted ground signs, traffic, and sign visibility

    Here is a very basic summary of the findings: drivers have a very hard time seeing low freestanding signs in most commercial environments due to the driver's vision being blocked by other cars on the road - you can't see through the cars! As the amount and density of traffic increases on these roads, drivers have progressively less time and distance to see and read the signs - and that can have a direct effect on Traffic Safety.

    Following the publication of the USSC sign height study, the USSC published it's "On Premise Sign Standards" which incorporated all of the information on Sign Height. The USSC Standards in turn have been accepted by the American Planning Association (APA) and published by the APA in the new edition of "Street Graphics and the Law" (2004). These principles were also incorporated into the International Zoning Code (2006), published by the International Code Council (ICC), which is the national association for building officials.

    Nonetheless, we continue to see the effort by many towns to restrict Freestanding Sign Height. And here lies the original problem - the attempt to make low sign height uniform for an entire municipality, regardless of traffic conditions or development of the area. This one-size-fits-all approach completely ignores the Traffic Safety implications of restricted sign height.

    Clarke Systems Architectural Signage Systems Wayfinding ADA

    Why fight it?
    Why would some people want to severely restrict freestanding sign height? There appears to be a disconnect between what the regulators are saying and what they are actually thinking. Some don't like signs, and find certain signs particularly offensive, while others grab onto these ideas because the want to "do some good" for their community without addressing the information now provided in the form of solid research.

    Here are some examples of what you may hear when you ask, "What are the reasons for lower signs?":

    • The appearance of a low or monument sign is more pleasing (or the reverse: tall signs on poles are ugly)
    • Low mounted signs "integrate" into landscape better and are "more organic"
    • 6'-0" monument sign height is safe (this is a completely false statement)
    • Low mounted signs preserve the view of the sky and vistas
    • Freestanding signs "block views" and monument signs do not
    • And finally, in quite a twist, some towns and building officials are advocating for low signs due to their concerns about high winds and hurricanes.

    As representatives of a national sign association, we take no position on the relative merit of tall or low signs. Beauty is truly in the eyes of the beholder. However, our very firm position is that low mounting height is often inappropriate for many roadway environments, from a Public Safety perspective. Solution: allow signs to be taller.

    Being able to see a freestanding sign, with adequate time and distance, is not an aesthetic matter or matter of good local planning - it is purely a matter of Traffic and Public Safety - and there exists no legitimate legal "balancing test" that we are aware of that weighs Traffic Safety with aesthetics.

    Our role as sign professionals is to provide information to regulators and at times, advocacy on behalf of proper sign design and controls. If sign regulations are objective and scientific, and not arbitrary, then the goals of all concerned can be achieved.

    USSC Members already have copies of "Sign Visibility: Effects of Traffic Characteristics and Mounting Height" (#4 on the page), as well as the "USSC Best Practices Standards for On-Premise Sign" (#11 on the page), both of which address the sign height issue and can provide you with the information necessary to help combat inappropriately low sign height. If you are not a USSC member, you can obtain copies of these publications, as well as all USSC sign research literature at, or by simply calling the USSC offices at 215-785-1922.

    Full information on USSC membership is also available at It pays to belong!

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