Published: December 5, 2011Updated: May 23, 2022

Lawmakers Aim to Make Roads Safer by Improving Signs

Legislation introduced this month in Congress calls on transportation officials to make traffic signs brighter and easier to read at night, a safety upgrade that is expected to become more crucial as senior citizens make up an increasing share of the driving population.

The Safe Roads for America Act authorizes federal funding and updates deadlines for replacing road, warning and regulatory signs nationwide with larger, retroreflective signs that increase illumination by reflecting light back to its source.

“As our population ages, we need to make our road signs more readable at night,” U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., who introduced the bill last week, said in a news release.

Federal safety officials say the upgrades—which the Federal Highway Administration estimates would cost $37 million over 10 years—would give motorists more time to make critical driving decisions and would cut emergency response times by making signs more visible at night.

Under the terms of the bill, state and local officials would have until Jan. 22, 2012, to ensure that regulatory, warning and all post-mounted signs meet minimum federal retroreflectivity standards. The deadline for overhead and street name signs would be January 2018.

The proposed legislation, which has garnered bipartisan support in Washington, D.C., and backing from groups including AARP and the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging, would give the federal transportation secretary authority to transfer available funding to local and state officials to carry out the work.

“Having almost two decades of experience in the road construction industry, I know how important reflectivity and increased visibility are to motorists, especially older drivers,” U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta (R-Pa.), the bill’s lead Republican sponsor, said in a statement. “This common-sense bill will make our nation’s roads safer for everyone, and it ensures that states and municipalities can afford these important safety upgrades.”

According to recently released U.S. Census Bureau data, people 65 and over now comprise the largest demographic population in the nation. And the trend is expected to pick up as more baby boomers become senior citizens in the coming years—the 2010 Census found that the senior population grew by 15.1 percent in the decade that ended last year, far faster than the overall population growth of 9.7 percent.

The AAA Traffic Safety Foundation has stated that 1 in 4 licensed drivers on U.S. roadways will be 65 or older within the next 10 years. In 2009, about 15 percent of the licensed population was 65 or older.

According to the Insurance Information Institute, older drivers are more likely than others to have impaired hearing and eyesight—particularly night vision—as well as slower reflexes. Those physical drawbacks have led many states to impose greater driving restrictions on seniors, and because insurers consider them an above average risk, many older drivers are forced to buy car insurance for high risk drivers.

Supporters say the proposed law would improve safety for senior drivers and everyone else on the nation’s roadways.

“Reps. Johnson and Barletta’s leadership on this vital legislation will help to continue the reduction of roadway fatalities and serious injuries nationwide,” Joe Jeffrey, chairman of the Coalition for Older Roadway User Safety, said in a statement.