“It's all about saving lives”
BY LIZ WOLGEMUTHApril 14th, 2006
CRYSTAL LAKE - In the coming weeks, drivers humming along Route 55 in Jackson Hole, Wyo., might all witness the same site: a very bright traffic sign that can be seen from a mile away.
The octagon might be 12, 18 or 24 inches in diameter, beaming the word STOP in red or SLOW in orange, directing traffic from an accident scene or a construction site.
“It's all about being seen; it's all about saving lives,” said All About Safety Signs Inc. owner Todd Gibson, who invented the light-emitting diode (LED) traffic-control signs with his father, an engineer, and has been selling them nationwide since December from his Crystal Lake office.
Their inspiration came when Gibson, a St. Charles resident, was volunteering as a wildfire fighter in Colorado.
While directing traffic, he almost was hit by a motorist who clipped the paddle sign from his hand.
Gibson said the fire department had followed convention, giving him a stop sign for one hand and a flashlight for illumination in the other.
After the incident, Gibson and his father set to work on a prototype, one that could be seen in the dark, the rain, the snow, at dusk and from an angle.
They used the LED technology now seen in highway message signs and school scoreboards.
The problem is not anecdotal. The number of work-zone fatalities doubled nationwide between 1997 and 2004, according to the Federal Highway Administration.
The rate hovers around three fatalities a day.
Current traffic-sign technology that involves a reflective coating is more than four decades old, Gibson said, and the market is ripe for growth.
All About Safety Signs recently won an award for innovation from the Virginia-based American Traffic Safety Services Association, a trade organization for roughly 1,600 companies and individuals in the traffic-control and roadway-safety industries.
“It's a phenomenal product,” said James Baron, the association's communications director.
Gibson, who has financed the company entirely with his own money, has more orders than he can fill at the moment. They are coming from as far away as Alaska and as near as the McHenry County Fire Department.
All of his suppliers initially were local, but he recently made some changes. The signs and accompanying telescoping poles are assembled in Gibson's shop, also home to his American Calibration Inc. company. He said eventually he will have to move to a larger facility.
All About Safety finds itself in a David versus Goliath situation, as it competes with 3M Corp., which sells the reflective coating now commonly used on stop and street signs.
The multi-faceted company invests more than $1 billion, or 6 percent of revenue, in overall research and development annually, and their technology is “on the leading edge,” said Morningstar Analyst Scott Burns, who covers 3M.
“If somebody comes up with a better mousetrap, I'm sure they'll have a lot of opportunity to penetrate those markets,” he said.
The greatest hurdle for All About Safety will be breaking into the sluggish buying arm of the municipal sector, according to Aaron Gellman, professor at Northwestern University's Transportation Center and Kellogg School of Business.
“There's such a low propensity to innovation,” Gellman said. “The problem is that most buyers perceive any innovation as risky, and they don't get any benefit from a success.”
But there is no question that there is interest in All About Safety Signs.
The Illinois Department of Transportation has been a customer. Illinois has 6,700 work-zone crashes a year and is “very concerned” about it, said Illinois Department of Transportation spokesman Matt Vanover.
John Bower, owner of High Country Fire Equipment, a fire-department supplier, sold the products to the North Saguache Fire Department in Saguache, Colo., which had two worker fatalities at accident scenes last year.
“We tested them out on an open road, and you can actually see the light from about three miles away,” Bower said.
© 2008, Northwest Herald (used with permission)
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