What did that highway sign say? States gets creative, but feds warn of confusion

By Tim Henderson, Stateline.org

States have had their fun with highway safety messages, posting everything from Taylor Swift lyrics to discourage texting in Mississippi, to a “vibe check” — winking at Gen Z — to encourage seat belt use in Arizona.

Such messages are shown intermittently on thousands of highway signs, known as variable messaging signs, when the billboards aren’t lit up with alerts about accidents, construction or other real-time traffic issues.

As the summer vacation season gets going, millions of America’s interstate drivers can expect to find more puns, silly turns of phrase or cultural references on those massive missives.

But federal safety officials aren’t amused by states’ cheek. In recent years, they’ve begun to discourage what they view as overly creative messages, fearing that in trying to entertain drivers, highway officials are confusing rather than enlightening them. Some states, most recently Arizona and New Jersey, have pushed back. As a result, officials at the Federal Highway Administration clarified this year that they’re not banning road-sign humor outright.

Mississippi, the state with the highest motor vehicle fatality rate in the country last year, has been particularly creative. Recent messages have included “FOUR I’S IN MISSISSIPPI TWO EYES ON THE ROAD,” and a reference to the Taylor Swift song “Anti-Hero”: “TEXTING AND DRIVING? SAY IT: I’M THE PROBLEM IT’S ME.”

“It’s been an effective program for us. We haven’t been contacted by [the] federal highway department and told to cease and desist. We want to be in compliance, but we haven’t stopped our message program,” said Paul Katool, a spokesperson for the Mississippi Department of Transportation.

A new rulebook issued last year “does not prohibit messages from including humor or cultural references,” Federal Highway Administration chief Shailen Bhatt wrote in a recent letter to U.S. Reps. Greg Stanton, an Arizona Democrat, and Thomas Kean Jr., a New Jersey Republican.

The representatives had complained earlier this year that the agency was stifling state creativity, calling the new rules “a blanket discouragement of humorous signs that leaves no room for state-by-state discretion.”

“Both of these states have signs that use slang or popular language, but the messages are clear,” the representatives wrote in their letter to Bhatt.

They cited messages such as two Arizona contest winners, “SEATBELTS ALWAYS PASS THE VIBE CHECK” and “I’M JUST A SIGN ASKING DRIVERS TO USE TURN SIGNALS,” as well as New Jersey’s recent holiday messages: “ DON’T BE A GRINCH, LET THEM MERGE” and “ SANTA’S WATCHING, PUT DOWN THE PHONE.”

Bhatt’s response is an apparent softening of the FHWA’s opposition to the signs, after the agency asked New Jersey to pull down some messages in 2022. Some became so popular on social media that the state Department of Transportation asked drivers not to take photos of the signs while driving, posting a cat meme on its own social media accounts: “IF YOU KEEP TAKING PHOTOS OF THE VMS BOARDS WHILE DRIVING WE WILL TURN THIS CAR AROUND AND GO BACK TO THE OLD MESSAGES.”

Messages shown in 2022 included “GET YOUR HEAD OUT OF YOUR APPS” and “SLOW DOWN. THIS AIN’T THUNDER ROAD,” a reference to a song by favorite son Bruce Springsteen, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported.

The Federal Highway Administration isn’t telling states what to do — states retain control of their message boards — but it doesn’t think humor and cultural references are helpful. Vehicles pass under the signs in the blink of an eye, and the missives could puzzle people who don’t “get it” right away.

“FHWA appreciates the States’ efforts to creatively convey important safety messaging to motorists. Those messages need to be balanced with maintaining driver attention,” Bhatt wrote in his letter to the lawmakers.

An agency spokesperson, Nancy Singer, said in a statement that “states may develop their own traffic safety campaign messages” but they should avoid “messages with obscure meaning, references to popular culture, that are intended to be humorous, or otherwise use non-standard syntax.”

There’s some serious research behind the new guidance: One of the studies cited in Bhatt’s letter shows that overly creative language can have the wrong effect when used on a highway message sign. Driving behavior can get more dangerous, not less so, if you’re trying to process a confusing message.

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“Messages involving humor, wit or pop culture references could have adverse consequences on driving behavior for motorists who are unable to correctly interpret those messages,” according to the 2022 study published by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.

Lead author Gerald Ullman, who was senior research engineer at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute at the time the study was published, said it simulated highway-sign messages seen while driving.

Highway wit can work well but only “for drivers who get the humor used and the traffic safety point of the message,” Ullman said in an email exchange. “However, it does appear to have adverse effects on those drivers who don’t get it.

“Pop culture references that younger drivers get might very easily be confusing for older drivers,” he said. “Conversely, puns or references to older funny movies that older drivers find witty can fly completely over the heads of younger drivers.”

Still in states such as Mississippi, state officials have heard from residents who say creative messages changed their habits, which might not have happened with more direct language, Katool said.

“It’s all good fun, but the point is to save lives,” Katool said. “There’s really only so many times you can just tell somebody to stop texting and driving or tell them to slow down. Eventually they just kind of tune you out. So we feel this is a way to leverage holidays, popular culture, music, that kind of thing.”

New Jersey is still using humor in its messages: A batch that ran in May included “SLOW DOWN BAD DRIVERS AHEAD” AND “CAMP IN THE WOODS NOT THE LEFT LANE.”

But the state is “mindful of the kinds of messages we put up, keeping them safety oriented” and does follow federal guidance, said New Jersey Department of Transportation spokesperson Stephen Schapiro.


New Jersey has one of the lowest rates of traffic fatalities as of 2023, about 0.78 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles driven. Minnesota is the only state lower, at 0.71, with the highest being Mississippi (1.76) and Arizona (1.69), according to preliminary National Highway Traffic Safety Administration statistics.

In Arizona, messages “sometimes include humor and cultural references, and we work hard to make sure key messages about safety will be easily understood by drivers,” said Doug Pacey, a transportation spokesperson. Over the Memorial Day weekend, the department used a relatively straightforward message: “COOKOUT ESSENTIALS BBQ, MUSIC, WATER, DESIGNATED DRIVERS.”

Like New Jersey and Mississippi, Arizona sometimes gets the public involved in picking safety messages with contests. A contest last fall led to two winning messages: “I’M JUST A SIGN ASKING DRIVERS TO USE TURN SIGNALS” — a reference to a line in the 1990 film “Notting Hill” with actor Julia Roberts, whose character in the film says, “I’m also just a girl, standing in front of a boy, asking him to love her.”

Another contest winner, Elise Riker, won for “SEATBELTS ALWAYS PASS THE VIBE CHECK” which was also displayed last fall. A marketing professor at Arizona State University, Riker told Stateline she crafted it to appeal to Gen Z drivers.

“A vibe check is Gen Z slang for good vibrations, from the 70’s,” Riker said. “Levity definitely helps a safety message get through. ‘You can die in a car accident without your seatbelt’ is more likely to be ignored.

“Nobody likes to think about dying,” she said. “Friendly and funny safety messages are a reminder that there are humans at the heart of it.”

Stateline is part of States Newsroom, a national nonprofit news organization focused on state policy.

©2024 States Newsroom. Visit at stateline.org. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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