12 Investigates: VDOT steps up highway sign safety inspections

RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) - Last year, two of the giant, green overhead signs you see up and down the interstate collapsed into oncoming traffic - leading NBC12 to ask VDOT: are Virginia's highways safe?

A 2,000 pound sign and pole crashed down onto I-95 in Prince George on January 17, 2012. Less than a month later, it happens again - this time on I-66 in northern Virginia. A 30-foot high sign topples onto the road, striking a pick-up truck.

In both cases, VDOT was lucky no one was hurt. On both days, there was high wind.

In both signs, the anchor bolts failed.

The base is probably the most critical part of the sign, and the anchor bolts that go deep into the ground hold the sign in place.

VDOT sent the anchor bolts from the failed signs to a lab for testing. The results are still being studied.

"We had loose bolts," said former Chief Engineer Malcom Kerley. "If they were real tight, the system stays together. If they're loose, you get a little racking. And that little racking may cause the failure of the bolts."

Kerley recently retired from VDOT, but in an interview before he left, he broke down nearly a year of VDOT research regarding the safety of the signs you travel under every single day.

"To be honest with you, I really don't want to be called at home with a sign falling. We were very fortunate nobody got hurt, and if we're going to err, we're going to err on the side of safety."

Last year, VDOT launched emergency statewide inspections into all signs that were similar to the two that failed.

1349 cantilever signs were given a closer look.

14 signs were immediately taken down - six in the Richmond district. 34 percent of the signs had loose nuts. 30 percent were priority problems - anchor bolt nuts that needed immediate tightening.

"It's not good the signs fell, but the action that we've taken since then will allow us to have a better inspection program for the overhead signs."

We've discovered VDOT even expanded its inspections to include a sampling of the metal signal poles that span roads. These structures are also held into the ground with anchor bolts.

Of the 528 lights inspected statewide, none were taken down and there were no major problems discovered.

VDOT bumped up inspections for its signs to once every four years. The agency is also studying how long these man-made structures can stand before they may need to be replaced.

Kerley believes all the caution will lead to Virginia having a better sign inspection program.

"You have to be diligent on your inspections, diligent on your designs. The signs are ok. You shouldn't be worried about the overhead signs."

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