A Seymour resident’s request for the city to put up signs in her neighborhood to make motorists aware of an autistic child in the area has officials in a quandary.
After seeing the signs in another neighborhood, Catelynn Niewedde sent an email to city councilman John Reinhart asking what she needed to do to get the signs installed near her home on East Brown Street.
But city officials don’t know how or why the three signs on Jackson Street were approved. The signs do not conform to the Federal Highway Administration’s Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, which regulates road markings, signs and traffic signals, officials said.
City attorney Rodney Farrow said he would not recommend the city go ahead and put up such signs now and likely will have to remove the old signs and investigate if there are similar signs that would comply.
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“We would be in violation of federal law,” he said.
Niewedde has contacted the office of state Sen. Brent Steele, R-Bedford, and said she has his full support in getting the signs installed.
In her research, she said, she has found the signs do comply and she doesn’t understand why the city is hedging on the issue.
“I’ve been fighting for these signs for the better part of the year,” Niewedde said.
Her 4-year-old son, Greg, is autistic, and she and other families with special needs children would benefit from having such signs in place, she said.
“A child with autism simply doesn’t understand that playing near a street is dangerous,” she said. “They don’t understand that if they see a friend across the street that they just can’t run across to get to them.”
That’s because many children with autism don’t experience fear in the same way other children do, she said.
Reinhart said he sympathizes with Niewedde.
“From what I’ve found out, no one really knows how they got up or on whose authority,” he said of the existing signs. “The street department remembers installing them three or four years ago, but no one seems to know who approved it.”
He doesn’t want the city to be held liable for violating federal code.
“They don’t conform with federal sign code, and we have liability if we post them,” Reinhart said. “My question is if we have liability if we put them up, do we maintain that liability by leaving some up that are already there?”
He said the city needs to have a policy in place regarding the signs that is fair to all residents.
“I can’t justify to this lady why there are signs up in one neighborhood and there aren’t in hers and why she can’t get them,” he said.
Farrow said to be able to enforce signs, the city has to have an ordinance in place for it, and he isn’t aware of any ordinance for autism street signs.
Requests for signs in neighborhoods such as for handicapped parking spots typically are approved by the board of works, Farrow said, but the city council must have an ordinance on the books for the signs.
The autism street signs are not an enforcement issue, however, Reinhart said.
“They are just a cautionary sign,” he said. “To be honest with you, I’m not sure if they even do any good, because I went down the road and didn’t even notice it the first time.”
He also doesn’t want the issue of signs to become a bigger problem in the city.
“Down the road, you can have requests for all kinds of signs in neighborhoods,” he said. “It’s not necessarily a good thing to become the sign capital of the world or known for all your street signs.”
The signs, alone, don’t make children safe, Niewedde added.
“They’re to make drivers aware that there are children in the area that don’t understand simple safety guidelines like looking both ways before you cross a street,” she said.
Niewedde said motorists often speed down her street, putting her son and other children at risk.
“It doesn’t matter if I sit my son down daily to explain to him the dangers of the road, he simply can’t understand it,” she said. “He can tell you that a car might hit him, but beyond that, he doesn’t understand.”
She said the signs also are an attempt to get people to be less noisy when they are in the neighborhood because autistic children have sensory processing disorders where noises are painful to them.
Niewedde said the signs are not to keep parents from teaching their children not to play in or near the road.
“What our city and government officials don’t understand is that an autistic child lacks the ability to understand what can happen to them if they run into the road,” she said.
Matt Nicholson, who is running unopposed in the November general election for the District 3 city council seat, asked if there were any autism signs available or that could be made that would comply with federal code.
Farrow said he didn’t know but would get with city engineer Nathan Frey to find out if there is an alternate sign with the same message that could be used.
Mayor Craig Luedeman said that until they find out for sure the existing signs would remain up. But if there is no sign that complies, they will have to be removed, he said.
“We will not put up another sign until we find one that complies,” he said.