Witty Highway Safety Messages Fall Flat with US DOT

Feds are concerned that overly creative digital billboard messages could confuse drivers, but state transportation officials disagree.

2 minute read

June 11, 2024, 10:00 AM PDT

By Mary Hammon @marykhammon

Digital highway sign above six-lane highway that says, "Texting and Driving? Say It: I'm the Problem It's Me."

A highway safety message on Interstate 55 in Jackson, Miss., refers to the lyrics of a Taylor Swift song, “Anti-Hero." | Mississippi Department of Transportation / Stateline

To catch drivers’ attention, some U.S. state transportation agencies are experimenting with entertaining highway safety messages on digital highway signs, “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,” reports Tim Henderson in an article for Stateline. But federal safety officials aren’t amused and have advised them to cut it out.

“In recent years, [the U.S. DOT has] 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,” Henderson writes. He adds, “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.”

However, after asking New Jersey to pull down some messages in 2022 because drivers were taking photos of the signs while driving, the agency recently clarified they are not banning this type of messaging. Which is a good thing, because Arizona, New Jersey, and Mississippi believe the humorous messages are effective and aren’t planning to stop. Officials from Mississippi told Stateline it’s been an effective program for them; they’ve even heard from residents who say the messages changed their habits.

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