Free The Signs!

[ Posted Tuesday, February 21st, 2023 – 17:43 UTC ]


Sign, sign
Everywhere a sign
Blockin' out the scenery
Breakin' my mind
Do this, don't do that
Can't you read the sign?

-- Signs, Five Man Electrical Band


I begin today with a rather anti-sign song lyric, which is somewhat counterproductive since I am actually about to take a very pro-sign stance. But when it gets right down to it, there just aren't a whole lot of songs about signs to choose from, so we must make do with what we've got. This is also an unusual column for me to write since I will be inveighing against the heavy hand of the federal government, which I usually save for my thoughts on the federal War On Drugs and a few other choice issues.

I'm sorry, am I being obscure? Am I leaving the reader somewhat lost? In need of a... well... sign, perhaps? Well, this column may have a tendency to aimlessly wander all over the countryside a bit, but here's what began this journey, for me:

New Jersey had a message for drivers who might be thinking of hitting the road while under the influence of marijuana: "We'll be blunt/Don't drive high." Another tried to protect woodlands: "Hold on to your Butts/Help prevent Forest Fires."

The state was engaging in what is all but tradition for transportation agencies looking to spice up their roadside safety messages with jokes and pop culture references. One researcher gathered more than 350 examples of the messages from 12 states in 2020. But late last year, the Federal Highway Administration responded to New Jersey's efforts at humor with a leaden warning, asking that it "cease and desist."

Robert J. Clark, head of the federal agency's New Jersey division, listed reasons the state should knock it off. In a letter to state highway officials, he wrote that using highway signs for such messages does not "promote the safe and efficient use of the roadway, does not serve a highway purpose, is inconsistent with both law and regulations, and increases the liability risk to the owner of the roadway facility."

For years, federal transportation officials have been trying to rein in usage of the signs, arguing there's no evidence humor improves safety -- and might create risks of its own by distracting or confusing drivers. State transportation officials, who are trying to encourage drivers to adopt better habits at a time when crash deaths have surged, have largely been undeterred while trying to sprinkle a little wit into calls for drivers to put down phones, buckle seat belts and ease off the gas.

Or as New Jersey put it: "Slow down. This aint Thunder Road."

Other slogans mentioned in the article, from various states:

Don't be a crash dummy
Drive sober


Ain't nobody got time for a wreck
Slow it down


Only Rudolph should drive lit
Plan a sober ride

(for the holiday season, obviously, from Pennsylvania)

And one more from Mississippi (where I have to admit I didn't recognize the cultural reference... which I realize puts me in the minority, but hey... full disclosure):

Texting and Driving?
Say it: I'm the problem it's me

For anyone else out there who lives under a musical rock (so to speak), that's a Taylor Swift reference. And you know what? While I didn't recognize that cultural reference, I certainly wouldn't have been distracted by the content of the message, were I travelling down a Magnolia State freeway, glancing up and seeing it. In fact, even as Swiftie-ignorant as I am, I would have heartily agreed with the basic premise: "Yeah, you over there on your phone ignoring traffic, you are the problem!" Heck, I used to have a bumpersticker on my car back in the 1990s that read: "HANG UP AND DRIVE!"

That's really what these freeway signs are -- the bumperstickers of the state. They're supposed to be catchy and funny and make you think and be memorable. That is their purpose in life.

Freeway signs, as with many freeway innovations, began in California. Their true original purpose was to convey important alerts, such as: "Accident ahead," or: "Caution! Slick roads!" and other such driver warnings. But a lot of the time, there are no accidents ahead and the weather's clear. The signs used to stay blank during these periods, or give positive messages such as: "Freeway clear." But then at some point, highway departments started realizing the signs could be used for other purposes to reach an enormous number of people. The first I remember this happening was for "Amber Alerts," which would usually give specific info about a car that had been used to abduct children. This was designed to get as much of the populace as possible to be on the lookout for it. At some point, the highway engineers realized that generic or seasonal safety messages were a good idea as well. The most memorable recent example from California is probably the "Click it or ticket" campaign (with an icon of a person properly wearing a seatbelt).

[Personal local note: Where I live, the major local newspaper has a columnist devoted to all things driving-related called "Mr. Roadshow." He occasionally runs contests to get people to suggest clever messages the state highway people might actually use. The most memorable one of these to me was: "Don't be a stinker/Use your blinker."]

At some point, obviously, the federal government got involved. Freeways are usually either Interstate or U.S. highways, and the feds want to maintain uniform standards across all states. Fair enough. But there is "maintaining uniform standards" and then there is the heavy jackboot of government crushing all creativity and sense of amusement out of others. You tell me which this sounds more like:

To get states to adopt more straightforward safety messages, the Federal Highway Administration has pointed to an 864-page book of rules called the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices. The manual sets standards for road signs and other highway infrastructure. Federal officials ruled in 2021 that some of the racier messages displayed -- referring to them as "unconventional syntax" -- were inconsistent with standards in the manual and could present a safety risk.

The current edition of the manual dates to 2009, but Congress told the highway administration to issue an update this year as part of the infrastructure law. The draft of the revised version includes guidance that comes down firmly against such messages.

"Messages with obscure or secondary meanings, such as those with popular culture references, unconventional sign legend syntax, or that are intended to be humorous, should not be used," the draft says.

Some states and safety advocacy groups have pushed back, calling for that language to be struck from the manual. [Governors Highway Safety Association Senior Director of Policy and Government Relations Russ] Martin said such a provision could leave federal highway officials in the position of judging just how funny is too funny.

"You start getting into having to make subjective value judgments about things," he said.

There are some things the federal government is good at doing. Writing 864-page manuals, for instance. But judging the relative value of comedy in public service messages really should not be one of them.

The article goes on to point out that there hasn't been much scientific study on the issue, and what exists is somewhat contradictory. One concluded that: "messages using humor or wordplay triggered more brain activity among participants," i.e., that people noticed them more and thought about them more. Another study bluntly concluded that signs should: "not include humor, wit, or pop culture references."

Since the scientific jury seems to still be out, why not let the states function as the much-vaunted "laboratories of democracy" in this instance? Maybe a reference that would make most drivers laugh in Dallas would be incomprehensible to a driver in Honolulu, but who cares? Each state knows its own populace well enough to determine what would be both effective and generate a positive reaction from their own drivers, without the federal government trying to squelch such creative innovation.

Sure, some of the messages will be too obscure or inscrutable for drivers to figure out. But the feedback from the public is generally (as one transportation spokesman put it): "a tremendous response." Drivers like something which eases the boredom of the road. They appreciate not being scolded too harshly to change their behavior, but rather with fun and upbeat references. Most human beings actually do have a sense of humor, to put it another way.

I have to close today with a few obscure cultural references of my own, the first from a movie from 1991 -- way back when freeway signs weren't just non-existent outside of California, they were largely non-existent even within the state, outside of the Los Angeles/Southern California region. And yet even back then -- in the dawn of the medium, so to speak -- one man saw the comedic (and even magical and self-aware) potential of such signs.

So here is the most endearing scene from Steve Martin's L.A. Story. Freeway messages are never going to get that advanced, one hopes, but even 30 years ago the possibilities for having fun with these signs clearly already existed.

So to President Joe Biden and Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg: Free the signs. Let creativity and puns and cultural references ring freely again, all across the highways and byways of America. Stop being such a killjoy! Here's even a reference for generations older than me (people like Joe Biden, for instance): Let the spirit of Burma Shave signs live again. Drivers have always loved a clever slogan and a good laugh while they're driving.

Free the signs!

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


3 Comments on “Free The Signs!”

  1. [1] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    Free the signs!

    Absolutely, positively, unequivocally!

    Someone should start a movement or something. Seriously! I mean, does Pete have too much time on his hands, or what!?

    But, you know, some idiot somewhere will eventually sue over one of those humourous signs and say they were distracted by it ... surprised it hasn't already happened. Or, has it? Hence the sign police ...

  2. [2] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    Very nice opening, by the way. :-)

  3. [3] 
    John M from Ct. wrote:

    Fun to read and think about. However, the overall tone was a bit ... geezer-ish.

    Not that that's necessarily a bad thing, said this geezer-in-training.

Comments for this article are closed.