Those big electronic message boards along highways that convey a message with humor to drivers are under attack by Uncle Sam. The federal government wants the messages to be less humor, more standard use.
It seems to me that the country could use more humor, even more corny dad jokes. Especially on long, boring highways, a little humor in the deliverance of important information to drivers goes a long way.
Here is an example:
Holiday cheer has landed on our overhead signs reminding travelers to drive safely (and end up on Santa’s “nice” list) in the days leading up to Christmas.
— Arizona DOT (@ArizonaDOT) December 24, 2023
Or, maybe this one:
The Best One-Liners in America Are on the Highway
What are your favorite messages on the highway electronic message boards? https://t.co/hcCW5tAnsB@WSJ @jenniferlevitz #transportation #traffic #cars pic.twitter.com/iy94e9yiC0
— Road to Zero (@RoadToZeroUS) August 10, 2018
This isn’t a new trend. Humor has been used in electronic road signs for years. We aren’t going to see them much longer if the government has its way.
Blame Mayor Pete.
The Federal Highway Administration, an agency that is in the U.S. Department of Transportation, issued new guidance in December about traffic safety messages. Signs should no longer use pop culture references or humor. Bah humbug, Secretary Buttigieg. Buttigieg’s department thinks that funny signs distract drivers.
They won’t be discontinued without some pushback, though. Many state highway officials have not stopped sharing the one-liners with road-trippers. The people who write the messages take pride in their work. The focus is on safety and they encourage responsible driving. For example, during the Halloween season, one electronic sign in Colorado said, “Make mummy happy, buckle up.” That’s cute and it reminds people to use their seat belts.
The official guidance on reminding people to use their seat belts is remarkably dull.
The Federal Highway Administration lays out its position in the newest edition of a 1,100-plus page Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices. Flipping to page 519 finds guidance stating humorous signs “might be misunderstood or understood only by a limited segment of road users.” They could also require more time to understand, the manual said.
The book offers a more straightforward example of a traffic-campaign safety message: “UNBUCKLED SEAT BELTS FINE + POINTS.”
How about this one during the holidays?
— WBZ NewsRadio (@wbznewsradio) November 21, 2018
Electronic messages along the highway deliver timely messages to drivers. They can warn of a crash up ahead or severe weather. There are icy roads and bridges alerts in the winter. The clever messages get the attention of drivers. That isn’t distraction. As usual, Mayor Pete does not have his finger on the pulse of America.
Shouldn’t Buttigieg be working on that pesky problem of airplane doors randomly falling off? Where has Pete been lately?
So, the feds are giving states two years to implement the changes from the manual. Some states were making changes before the manual came out. The focus was on language and miscommunication.
In Ohio, where a committee brainstorms messages quarterly, there is a renewed focus on universal understanding, said Matt Bruning, press secretary for the Ohio Department of Transportation.
A few holiday seasons ago, the department put out “Life is fra-gee-lay, drive safe” in a nod to “A Christmas Story,” the 1983 movie filmed in Cleveland. Fans of the classic appreciated the reference to the father mispronouncing “fragile.” (It must be Italian!) But the department received calls from those who didn’t grasp the sign or the phonetic spelling.
This year, Ohio tried another bit inspired by the movie. “A DUI, worse than a gift from Aunt Clara.”
“If you don’t know that reference, Aunt Clara’s a generic enough name,” Bruning said. “You know they’re trying to say that a DUI is a bad thing.”
Iowa, meanwhile, has used, “Santa sees you on your phone. You serious, Clark?” (That’s a homage to the 1989 comedy “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.”)
In 2022, New Jersey rolled out the literally cheeky, “Hold on to your butts, help prevent forest fires” as well as “Slow down this ain’t thunder road.”
Some of the messages were too popular. State transportation departments had to warn drivers against stopping and taking photos of the signs. Just keep moving down the road, people.
The Federal Highway Administration went so far as to block the jokes in some areas. It happened in New Jersey. Now the messages are more safety-oriented. “Reckless drivers are worse than fruitcake” is one sign that appeared on interstate and state highways.
Daria McCloskey found herself chuckling on a recent drive when, as she approached a New Jersey interchange, an electronic highway sign flashed “Don’t be a grinch, let them merge.”
“In the past couple of years, I haven’t had much to laugh about,” the retired schoolteacher said. “But those signs during this last holiday season were pretty funny.”
There you go. Mayor Pete should lighten up a little bit. Give the people a smile or a chuckle.