If your drive through Fountain Valley has seemed different the past few months but you couldn't quite pinpoint the change, take a closer look at the street signs suspended from traffic signals and lampposts across the city.
They are bigger and easier to read and provide more information to passing motorists.
The city is in the process of replacing scores of aging street-name markers with state-of-the-art signs that officials say will improve traffic flow, prevent accidents and make commuting across Fountain Valley a little easier.
"It's an improvement," said Jim Hall, a 28-year-old office manager who said he spotted the new signs when driving to a computer store on Warner Avenue. "The print on the old ones was so small you had to almost stop your car to get the address number. . . . The print on these is much better."
Fountain Valley is one of several cities changing their signage with an eye on safety as well as civic pride and cost savings.
Several cities, including Santa Ana, are replacing green-and-white lighted street-name markers suspended from traffic signals with nonelectric versions that require little maintenance.
Dana Point, Orange and Seal Beach recently redesigned their signs using fancy typefaces and graphic logos that provide a distinctive look.
Dana Point's new signs include an image of community founder Richard Henry Dana with his foot on a rock and his tall ship in the background.
"It enhances the identity of the city," Councilman Harold R. Kaufman said. "We are all proud of our city, and I think the signs show that pride to people who are driving though or coming to visit."
Orange's new signs bear a graphic depicting the city's namesake citrus, while Seal Beach's includes the image of a playful seal.
Not all traffic engineers favor adding logos to street signs, preferring instead to provide only basic information like street name and block number.
"It's hard to make out a logo when you are driving by," said Mark Lewis, traffic engineer for Fountain Valley, which decided to leave its city seal and name off its new signs. "It can become a blur."
Instead, Fountain Valley focused on making both its traffic-signal signs and smaller lamppost markers clear and easy to read.
"When traveling at a high rate of speed, you need to make decisions in quick order," Lewis said.
The old lamppost signs were printed in 4-inch capital letters. The new signs have 6-inch letters using both upper- and lowercase. Experts say that lowercase letters are more quickly recognized and easier to read.
"It's more of the way you typically read information," Lewis said. "People don't read many things in all capitalized letters."
The new traffic-signal signs include the block number and arrows--elements the old lighted signs lacked.
Fountain Valley officials studied traffic signs across Southern California, developed a few prototypes and asked residents for their impressions.
Cities also have financial reasons for replacing the lighted traffic-signal signs, which cost $750 to $800 apiece and require frequent light-bulb replacement and other maintenance. By contrast, the new reflective signs cost $350 to $500 and are illuminated by passing cars' headlights.
Santa Ana decided to begin replacing its lighted signs a few years ago when gusting winds caused heavy damage to many of the markers.
If the signs are broken, officials say, they are almost impossible to read at night.
"The maintenance savings with the new signs is critical," Santa Ana traffic engineer T.C. Sutaria said.
Not all cities are rushing to change their signage, though.
Irvine, for example, studied the possibility of adding block numbers to its 1,700 lighted signs.
But officials eventually dropped the idea because it would have cost $300,000 to implement and would have required reducing the size of the letters that spell out the street names.