Avery Dennison Reflective Solutions Blog / Why sign color matters, especially in work zones

Why sign color matters, especially in work zones

The Importance of Fluorescent Colors

Before I became the work zone product manager at Avery Dennison, I held several highway safety positions from working for a sign fabrication to supply safety devices for the road construction market. That’s given me a unique perspective on the realities our customers face and it’s the reason I am so passionate about improving work zone safety. 

On my way into work one summer morning I heard a national news story about a misspelled highway sign in Wisconsin. Unfortunately, the sign came from the sign shop I worked for. We went out and fixed the sign (no it didn’t cost the DOT thousands of dollars of taxpayer money), and other than a few jokes, it was quickly forgotten.

When I look back at that experience, one thing really stands out.  Do you know how many people saw that sign before it was reported, that never caught the errors? The worker that made the sign, the person that inspected the sign, the shipping team that checked it before loading it for the contractor, the contractor that installed the sign, the DOT inspector that inspected the sign before the road was reopened. A lot of eyes saw this sign before the story was ever broken, but more importantly, this wasn’t caught the day after they opened the road. It was caught long after the road was opened. Thousands of cars drove this highway everyday and no one noticed.

Here’s why. People don’t look at signs when they are familiar with the route. When you drive the same place over and again, signs may be a landmark for you in regards to  an upcoming turn, but most drivers don’t pay attention to them. People only pay close attention to signs when they are driving an unfamiliar route.

Road agencies are aware of this too, which is why when signs need to change, they add extra warning features to grab a driver’s attention.  In the US, it is common to add orange safety flags to a new or changed regulatory or warning sign. Some of the more common sign changes would be a change in speed limit or a new stop sign that didn’t previously exist. And of course the most familiar type of temporary alerts involve road construction.

traffic signs in work zones

Road agencies must grab drivers attention to changing road environments due to construction. There may be lane closures, lane shifts, speed changes, bumps, dips, and detours.  The best way to get a drivers attention is by using signs that are not the same color as the typical regulatory and warning signs. Globally, the most common sign color for a construction warning sign is orange. However, there are some agencies that do not have a standard color for construction signs and instead use traditional regulatory colors.

Using contrasting colors should be the starting point for any work zone signage specification. The most effective way to use contrasting colors is to use a fluorescent color. Not only are they more vibrant than traditional colors, they have better all day conspicuity making a static sign appear more dynamic. They utilize the UV rays from the sun to enhance brightness, particularly from dawn to dusk when traditional colors become less visible.

traffic signs in work zones

The use of fluorescent signs has become more popular as the durability has improved and the costs of these products has dropped. Today agencies use fluorescent yellow, fluorescent yellow-green (lime green), and fluorescent orange for a variety of warning signs. For roadway construction signs, the US has been using orange signs since 1971 for work zones, and started using fluorescent orange in roll ups in the mid-1980’s, and on rigid signs in the mid 1990’s. Over time the durability and brightness of these materials has improved greatly and have become a standard in most work zones and now going beyond signage to temporary traffic control devices as well.

At the end of the day, making sure you have proper advance warning of road work ahead is a necessity, but utilizing colors that don’t match typical regulatory and warning signs in use will get the drivers attention in a more effective manner. The use of fluorescent colors gives you an even greater chance of properly warning the drivers of the road work ahead. It may be your wife, daughter, son, husband or parents that need that warning, so the color of the signs does make a difference.

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