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Feds crack down on funny traffic warnings

Written by The Anand Market

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In recent years, drivers across the country have laughed (or groaned) at the humorous safety messages that have appeared on America’s highways.

In Massachusetts, there was the inevitable play on the Boston accent: “Change lanes? Using Yah Blinkah.”

Iowa Department of Transportation tried: “Texting and driving? Oh cell no! »

New Jersey paid tribute to Bruce Springsteen, warn drivers: “Slow down. This isn’t Thunder Road.

But federal officials say some attempts at humor have gone too far and could be distracting or misunderstood.

In the latest edition of the federal standards on road signs, published in Decemberofficials warned that posts “with obscure or secondary meanings, such as those referencing popular culture” or those “intended to be humorous,” should not be used.

The standards do not impose an outright ban on all references to humor or pop culture in highway signs, the Federal Highway Administration said in a statement Wednesday. But they recommend that authorities avoid messages “likely to confuse or distract drivers”.

State and local officials should “exercise good judgment,” the statement said, based on long-standing principles that recommend that road signs “meet a need; draw attention; convey a clear and simple message; Enforce; and allow sufficient time for an appropriate response.

The federal guidelines, reported by The Wall Street Journalwas a blow to state officials who moonlighted as comedy writers to try to attract the attention of drivers.

Paul Katool, a spokesman for the Mississippi Department of Transportation, is part of a group of employees who debate ideas each month for funny highway signs, riffs on movies, pop music and upcoming holidays .

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One sign that attracted attention in Mississippi referenced lyrics from Taylor Swift’s hit song “Anti-Hero”: “Texting and Driving?” Say it: I am the problem. That’s me.” Another popular one, Mr. Katool said, referenced the “Star Wars” TV show “The Mandalorian,” stating: “Baby Yoda uses the force but still needs a seat auto.”

Not every sign is a resounding success, Mr. Katool acknowledged. When the movie “Barbie” was released last year, the ministry urged drivers not to send text messages with the message: “Be a doll, use your accessories at home.”

“It was popular,” Mr. Katool said. “It wasn’t super viral.”

Still, he said, the humorous panels are “great conversation starters.”

“There are only so many ways to say, ‘Don’t text and drive,’” Mr. Katool said. “People ignore you.”

The Maine Department of Transportation hosted a smart sign competition which attracted nearly 2,000 entries. One winner urged drivers to slow down in winter, saying: “Little known fact: snow is really slippery.”

“In even having this discussion, MaineDOT believes the signs meet the goal of promoting safety,” Paul Merrill, a department spokesman, said in a statement Wednesday. “We will continue to publish our messages and hope that the federal government will be willing to engage in more conversations on this topic. »

A 2020 study A study commissioned by the Virginia Department of Transportation found that “messages about distracted driving, messages containing humor, and messages using puns and rhymes rank high among multiple measures of effectiveness” in promoting safer driving.

The study recommends using lightweight signs but targeting messages more precisely. Signs that use puns and rhymes are more effective than those that trade in sports or pop culture references, he says.

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But a 2022 study, funded by the Governors Highway Safety Association and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, found that a “significant proportion” of drivers did not understand safety messages that included humor, wit or references to pop culture. This study recommended that road signs not use humor and that messages be limited to 16 words or numbers.

Richard A. Davey, president of New York City Transit, said humorous safety messages can “pierce through the noise.” When he was secretary of the Massachusetts Department of Transportation in 2014, the roadside message “Use Yah Blinkah” received very positive attention from Boston drivers and local news media, he said.

“I think the local flavor of safety messaging is important,” Mr. Davey said. “What works in Wyoming will be different in Massachusetts.”

New Jersey has a tradition of using humorous signs such as: “We’ll Be Straight, Don’t Drive High” and “Get Your Head Out of Your Applications.” However, the state was warned by federal officials that such messages could distract attention.

“Our goal is always to bring attention to safety and that’s the goal of these signs,” said Steve Schapiro, spokesman for the New Jersey Department of Transportation. “It’s about making sure people read them, remember them and drive safely.” »

Still, he said, New Jersey would follow federal guidelines and “be mindful of the type of messages we put out, keeping them focused on safety.”