Washington State Wants to Stop Theft of Mile 420 Signs. Its Solution? Mile 419.9.

By Julia Jacobs
New York Times News Service

The Washington State Department of Transportation has a problem that just won’t go away.

For years, people have persistently stolen those green-and-white mile markers posted along the highway. The most popular signs to pilfer are Mile 420, a popular number among marijuana enthusiasts, and Mile, ahem, 69. (If you don’t know that one by now, we can’t help you.)

“They will typically go and take those more than anything,” said Trevor McCain, who specializes in driver information signs at the Transportation Department. “They have special meanings to some people.”

So the sign aficionados in Washington had to get creative. In hot spots for sign theft, they’ve simply moved the highway marker back one-tenth of a mile and tweaked the sign to say Mile 419.9. Or Mile 68.9.

The solution has not always been effective. In 2009, the state added a Kelly green sign reading Mile 68.9 to Route 231 in eastern Washington, said Ryan Overton, a spokesman with the Transportation Department. Two years later, someone stole it. Three years after that, its replacement disappeared.

And in another two years, drivers were yet again deprived of knowing the midpoint between Miles 68 and 70.

Transportation Department employees also have the burden of explaining to people that this pattern of sign theft is not at all a laughing matter.

The mile markers are meant to help ambulances and police locate vehicles in the event of an emergency such as a car crash, Overton said. And in rural areas, they can be crucial in giving drivers a geographical point of reference.

“These are a big safety issue, and that’s why we ask people not to take them,” he said.

The Transportation Department has also tried to impress upon people that the financial burden of replacing these signs ultimately falls on taxpayers.

Overton estimated that this problem has existed for about 20 years. Rick Johnson, another spokesman for the state patrol, said it felt as if it had been an annoyance for “as long as they’ve had signs.”

Other states have also tried decimal points as a solution to disappearing signage. Several years ago, Colorado went all the way to the hundredths place when it created a Mile 419.99 marker for Interstate 70, The Denver Post reported. By 2015, Idaho had gone for a Mile 419.9 sign, according to The Associated Press.