Everywhere a Sign: Roadway Signage Explained

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Whether on a road trip or the daily commute, we’re all constantly confronted with a barrage of signs. Some are vital (“Bridge Out”), but this article covers only those not-so-vital-yet-seem-to-be-everywhere signs.

Far and Away

Have you ever noticed that many billboards on American interstates seem to always be off in the distance, high atop a hill, instead of close to the road where you could actually read them? Thank Lady Bird Johnson for making you squint.

Like most First Ladies, Mrs. Johnson had taken on a personal project to support; she championed the beautification of the country. Flowers and trees were planted throughout Washington, D.C., dilapidated buildings were freshly painted, and playgrounds in the inner city were refurbished. While driving through her home state of Texas one day, she decided that the many billboards along the freeways were eyesores, and that travelers would rather gaze at wildflowers while they motored. (Cynical Congressmen of that era observed that retailers deprived of billboard space would be forced to advertise on one of the radio stations Mrs. Johnson owned.)

Prior to the Highway Beautification Act of 1965, the federal government offered a financial incentive to any state that “controlled” the placement of billboards along interstate highways to the tune of an extra ½% in road funding, but fewer than 20 states participated in the program. The Outdoor Advertising Association fought the Beautification Act fiercely, and by the time it passed, it had been seriously watered down. Billboards were permitted in “those areas of commercial and industrial use,” and billboard owners were compensated for any of their ads that were removed once the bill passed. The act has been amended many times since then. For the most part, outdoor ads must be placed 660 feet of the nearest edge of the right-of-way, which is why some of us need binoculars to read them.

Blocking Out the Scenery, Breakin’ My Mind

Work from home! Recession-proof income! We’ve all seen these homemade signs tacked onto utility poles and placed curbside at major intersections; in fact this proliferation of street spam has become so overwhelmingly commonplace that it has its own name (and local ordinances forbidding same) – “bandit signs.”

Just to save you some time and money, please note that 99.99% of the “work from home” opportunities posted on bandit signs are ads for multi-level marketing companies and, unlike most traditional run-of-the-mill jobs, will cost you money to get involved. For example, Herbalife distributors are a major source of those bandit signs. But neither Herbalife nor any sort of company name is revealed to the unsuspecting folks calling the toll-free number until they’ve spent over $200 for the all-important “information packets.”

There are several grass roots organizations, such as CAUSS (Citizens Against Ugly Street Spam), dedicated to the fight against bandit signs. One of their (repeat: theirs, not mine) tips for private citizens who care to join in the war against illegal vertical litter is to not remove such signs, but to deface them. Removing the sign just leaves space for another spammer to plant his shingle. But scribbling on the sign with paint or permanent marker sends a message to any potential poster – sign sharks are patrolling this area and will do their best to prevent your message from being seen.

Sandwich Men

How does a small business owner promote his shop when there are very strict laws in place relative to posting signs and advertisements? Hire a human billboard.

In the early 1800s, the British economy was in serious need of funds; London was still rebuilding after the Great Fire, and the whole country had racked up a fair amount of debt as a result of that little skirmish with the Colonies. The Government decided to raise money the tried and true way—by imposing a variety of taxes. One of the many items that were assessed was advertising posters or signs tacked on buildings. To avoid paying the tax, business owners paid men a couple of shillings to wear two placards, front and back, supported by “suspenders” over the shoulders. These walking advertisements became so ubiquitous in London that author Charles Dickens was prompted to derisively describe them as “sandwich men” - "a piece of human flesh between two slices of paste board.” As a result, “sandwich board” became the universal term to describe the wearable signs that also proved to be a popular promotional gimmick in the U.S.

Not an “Ad,” but a “Traffic Control Device”

Those large blue signs on freeways that let you know there’s a Shell station or a Cracker Barrel at the next exit are called “Interstate Logo Boards,” and they began popping up on America’s roadways in the early 1980s. Family road trips had been a tradition for over 20 years and during that time the mom ‘n pop cafes and motor hotels had exploded into a hundreds of different restaurant and motel chains. The traditional generic “Gas-Food-Lodging Next Exit” signs were now leaving motorists in a quandary: What kind of food? (My kids won’t eat anything but pizza.) Which gas stations? (I’ve only got Mobil and Amoco credit cards.) The logo boards soon became an essential aid for travelers.

The criteria for getting a business listed on a logo board are fairly complex. The business must be open a minimum number of hours per day, and must be located within three miles of the exit. All businesses listed must have restrooms, telephones and drinking water, and must have no cover charge or membership requirements. The list goes on. The rates for placing your logo on a sign vary from state to state, and if you want to include a “trailblazing” sign (the smaller directional sign pointing the way at the top of the exit), that costs extra.

Negotiating for space on a logo board can become cutthroat. In Tennessee, priority was given to restaurants that provided three meals a day and were closest to exits. Some clever pizza ship shop owners got around this rule by offering coffee and donuts to their cleaning crews and calling it “breakfast.” A rep for McDonald's, whose stores were further from the exit and had lost their coveted spot on the sign, petitioned the state to define “breakfast,” which resulted in several more paragraphs of rules and regulations.

Posted: Obviously

First things first: Common Law dictates that walking across private property is trespassing, whether there are signs or not. You can be prosecuted if you’re found camping, hunting or fishing on someone’s land without an invitation, no matter how much you protest that there wasn’t a fence or a sign.

As far as the penalties go, landowners who take the time and money to conform to certain regulations can actually demand a bit more per pound of flesh than the guy who nails a generic hardware store-bought “No Trespassing” sign to a tree. Actual signage requirements vary from state to state, but each does have specific steps a landowner must take to consider his property “Posted.” In most cases, the signs have to be no less than 500 feet apart along the perimeter of the property, and must also include the landowner’s name. In many jurisdictions, the signs have to be a certain size with a specified typeface size. Only if the landlord follows these directives may he legally declare his land “Posted,” which ultimately gives him more leverage in court against unwanted hikers or hunters.

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April 12, 2011 - 11:28am
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