Open season on traffic signs?

By Cali Bagby

Each island tends to have a signature, when it comes to traffic sign damage.

On Lopez, vandalism typically involves bullet holes, but on San Juan the incline is simply to pull signs out of the ground and leave them on the side of the road. On all three islands, San Juan County Public Works has had to clean signs shot with paintball guns.

The damage often occurs during certain times of the year, like Christmas break and graduation, according to Russ Harvey.

“Right now we only seem to have bullet hole problems on Lopez,” said Harvey, Public Works’ operation manager. “Sign vandalism is part of our regular routine, but shooting a sign is more ominous … and just irresponsible.”

This is not the first time signs were found with bullet holes. In February, someone fired several rounds of ammunition into a stop sign near the intersection of Airport and Shark Reef roads.

On Dec. 13 the San Juan County Sheriff’s Office reported more signs damaged with bullet holes on Lopez. Harvey doesn’t have an exact number of how many signs on Lopez were vandalized, but he says it is numerous.

The danger of shooting signs is that bullets travel a long way before they stop, whether in flight or when they ricochet, said San Juan County Sheriff Rob Nou.

And in a worse case scenario, bullets could hit a bystander.

Damaged signs on all three islands, pose not only a safety hazard, but could affect islanders’ pocketbooks.

“Vandalizing stop signs is certainly putting people at risk, also sharp curve signs — things like that,” Nou said. “The main thing right now is that with tough economic times, Public Works has to go out and replace signs, which is a very unnecessary extra cost for taxpayers.”

Harvey estimates that it costs $130 or more to replace a sign and a post.

Only a couple people are caught a year for sign vandalism, Nou said.

But those caught are charged with malicious mischief, a misdemeanor offense where the court decides the penalty.

In 30 years with Public Works, Harvey has seen only two or three people prosecuted for vandalizing signs.

“They don’t get caught very often,” Nou said. “These are late night opportunistic kinds of things.”

Vandalism not only costs money, but it also has the potential to affect a visitor’s view of the islands.

“It’s like any other vandalism,” Nou said. “It’s right out there and out in the public eye on display and it sends a message — not necessarily a good one.”