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Lifesavers On Our Streets: Illuminated Signs Light the Way

It is no secret that on-premise signs are an absolutely critical component of our wayfinding systems, without which people could not find the products and services they seek, especially in the commercial landscape.

By Andrew Bertucci, Executive Directory, United States Sign Council

If you make electric signs, and particularly if you make internally illuminated signs, you can certainly take credit for engaging in the life-saving business as well!

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  • It is no secret that on-premise signs are an absolutely critical component of our wayfinding systems, without which people could not find the products and services they seek, especially in the commercial landscape.

    Even the planning profession recognizes this indisputable quality of on-premise signs. In its signature publication on sign control, Street Graphics and the Law, the American Planning Association (APA) makes its perception of the critical role of on-premise signs perfectly clear…"Signs tell people where to find what."

    The same APA publication also makes it clear that if signs are to guide people to find what they need and want, those signs must be designed to be adequate for that purpose. And, in the case of Street Graphics and the Law, adequate means that the signs conform to the size, height, and placement requirements detailed in the United States Sign Council (USSC) Guideline Standards which have been adopted by the APA publication.

    Those of us in the sign industry, of course, already know how vital signs are to the guidance and orientation function they perform for motorists. It is, nonetheless, reassuring to observe that the planners who create the zoning rules we must follow are also well aware of these functions and their impact on traffic safety.

    Virtually all sign codes, in fact, base the justification for their enactment and enforcement on their ability to promote and preserve traffic safety. It is for that reason that the USSC has funded its extensive amount of research into the public safety aspect of on-premise signs.

    Thanks to this research, and the continuing ability of USSC to bring it to light, communities across the country are finally beginning to understand the vital role of signs in promoting traffic safety and to approach their sign regulation from a whole new perspective. Because of the USSC research, the indiscriminate downsizing of signs can no longer be justified, and as more and more communities recognize this, signs of adequate size and legibility are gaining approval in updated sign ordinances.

    Unfortunately, there are still some individuals and groups purporting to be interested in preserving the environment that refuse to accept the vital role of signs. This essentially negative outlook is for the most part directed at illuminated signs in the nighttime environment, which some in our society find offensive to their aesthetic sensibilities and to the promotion of a darkened landscape capable of providing a view of the stars.

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    There is however, one overriding problem with this simplistic approach. And that problem is traffic safety!

    In an exhaustive research study entitled Analysis of Accident Rates by Age, Gender, and Time of Day published by the Transportation Research Institute of the University of Michigan, the value of illuminated on-premise signs becomes apparent

    The human eye, for all its wondrous ability, simply does not function well in the dark. It depends on a light source as a point of focus, and human beings driving cars at a high rate of speed on crowded roads depend on light sources, such as illuminated signs - and particularly internally illuminated signs - to guide and orient them.

    The reason why this is important is pinpointed precisely by the Michigan study, which details accident rates during daylight and nighttime driving experiences. The differences between day and night driving in both ordinary and fatal accidents is startling.

    In an overview of its detailed statistical analysis, the study is unequivocal...

    "By defining daytime as 6AM to 9PM and nighttime as 9PM to 6AM, trip mileage may be classified as occurring during the day or at night. By categorizing accidents in a similar manner, daytime and nighttime rates per mile driven can be calculated. In general, the risk of accident is higher at night than during the day. Per mile driven, the nighttime fatal involvement rate for drivers of all ages was 4.6 times the daytime rate. The difference varied with age of the driver…among drivers 20-24, the nighttime fatal accident rate was 6.1 times the daytime rate…drivers of all ages combined experienced 10.37 fatal involvements per 100 million miles at night and 2.25 during the day."

    In simple language, nighttime driving is 4 to 6 times more life threatening than driving during the day, when the visual cues are much more apparent. Of course, one of the most important visual cues at night is an illuminated sign. In many cases, it provides the only visual cue. Dare we imagine what the accident rates would likely be without this source of guidance.

    So, next time someone tells you that illuminated signs are not important to society, you may want to remind him or her about the consequences of doing without them, and of why a critical part of their job at night is to help save lives.

    For more information about the work of the USSC, including research publications detailing the relative traffic safety attributes of illuminated sign types, visit

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