- The Washington Times - Monday, December 6, 2010

The nanny state is coming to your town, and it wants to redecorate. Last week, the Federal Highway Administration updated the national rules that govern the look and feel of neighborhood street signs. Ordinarily, there is no reason to pay attention to the “Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices,” one of the least interesting reads at a federal depository library near you. These regulations are updated about every five years, and even Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood had to admit some of the latest changes are a bit daft.

A committee of bureaucrats - likely inspired by the works of the anti-capitals-ist poet E.E. Cummings, who hated convention so much that he rejected traditional grammatical rules, including punctuation and capitalization - decided that all upper-case street signs have got to go. Uncle Sam also newly insists that the signs on America’s street corners display white lettering on either a green, brown or blue background. There are no exceptions. “I believe that this regulation makes no sense,” Mr. LaHood said in a statement. “It does not properly take into account the high costs that local governments would have to bear. States, cities and towns should not be required to spend money that they don’t have to replace perfectly good traffic signs.”

Department of Transportation officials who spoke on background with The Washington Times defended the rule as sensible, emphasizing that existing signs can remain in place as long as they are perfectly good. When it’s time to replace a sign, however, the new sign must follow the approved color scheme designed to increase nighttime readability. The lower-case mandate is based on a study conducted nearly 15 years ago involving two dozen 70-something drivers. These old-timers recognized a mixed-case street sign about 12 percent more quickly than an all-upper-case sign. It’s not clear why this is so critical on low-speed residential streets, but now the bureaucratic leviathan considers it a “safety” issue to change every sign in America.

It should come as no surprise, then, that the American Traffic Safety Services Association - a group that represents sign manufacturers - helped lobby for the rule modifications. While a local community isn’t forced to change all of its signs at once, those that care about appearance will likely spend money to replace signs early to maintain uniformity. For example, homeowners’ associations, notoriously persnickety about such matters, will likely use the rule to gouge residents to pay for shiny new signs.

That’s because Big Brother’s latest rules extend to any road “open to public travel” - including private property. Mr. LaHood is right when he says this is nonsense. Now he should actually do something about it. With local governments already facing massive debt from overspending, it’s a bad time to mandate expensive change of dubious value.