Feds warn states displaying funny traffic signs: Proceed with caution

Drivers zipping down Ohio highways during the holidays in 2019 saw an electronic traffic-safety sign urging them to be wary.

“Life is fra-gee-lay,” it read, followed by “Drive safe.” The message was a reference to the movie “A Christmas Story,” in which Ralphie’s dad incorrectly pronounces “fragile” on a wooden crate carrying his beloved leg lamp.

But drivers were confused, and they let state officials know it.

“People who had seen ‘A Christmas Story’ thought it was hilarious. People who hadn’t had no idea what we were talking about,” Matt Bruning, an Ohio Department of Transportation spokesman, told The Washington Post.

Those are the kinds of signs that federal officials would like states to avoid. Last month, the Federal Highway Administration released new guidance about traffic-safety signs, urging officials to avoid humor and pop-culture references that might confuse drivers. The guidelines in the 1,161-page Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices for Streets and Highways took effect Thursday, but federal officials are giving state agencies two years to adopt them. After days of confusion and outcry, federal officials on Thursday clarified that while the manual dictates that signs should be “simple, direct, brief, legible and clear,” it doesn’t prohibit them from being funny.

“The new edition does not include a ban on humor or pop culture references on changeable message signs,” an administration spokesperson said in an email. “Rather, it includes a recommendation to avoid the use of humor and pop culture references in changeable message signs that may confuse or distract drivers.”

That’s good news for Arizona officials. For the last seven years, the state Department of Transportation has held a contest to come up with the best messages. Last year, the department received 3,700 entries. The winners were “Seatbelts always pass the vibe check” and “I’m just a sign asking a driver to use turn signals,” a reference to a famous line from Julia Roberts in the romantic-comedy “Notting Hill.”

On Wednesday, the Arizona Department of Transportation said it was “disappointed” in the federal guidelines discouraging the use of “creative” traffic safety messages.

“These signs have been incredibly popular with drivers, and are an important tool for engaging the public in traffic safety awareness,” Gov. Katie Hobbs (D) wrote in a statement released by the DOT. “We hope the federal government reconsiders and allows the fun and informative phrases to continue on Arizona’s highway message signs.”

On Thursday, Arizona officials updated their response, saying they appreciated the Federal Highway Administration’s “recent clarification” and would continue to write messages that are easily understood by drivers, whether they contain jokes or pop-culture references or not.

Sam Cole, a traffic safety manager at the Colorado Department of Transportation, has been writing messages for the state’s highway signs for about eight years. His rules of the road: Limit a message to six or fewer words, keep it clear, and make it memorable. Humor is a great way to grab people’s attention and make a message stick, he said.

“You want to do something unusual,” he said.

But unusual does not mean indecipherable, he added. Cole admitted that he might have gone overboard in previous years. Younger people probably understood one sign’s use of “#YOLO” to mean “You only live once,” but the phrase might have escaped older generations. Their message “Get your head out of your apps” distracted drivers as they figured out what that meant and offended some once they did.

One transportation official’s regret is another’s crown jewel. Willy Sorenson, a traffic and safety engineer with the Iowa Department of Transportation, used the same message in 2014 after a father called him to pitch his 14-year-old son’s idea. Actor George Takei posted the message on his Facebook page, capturing more than 213,000 likes.

“Everybody gets it. If you’re driving, you should not be using your phone,” Sorenson said.

The scientific research of humorous traffic-safety signs is mixed.

Tripp Shealy, a civil and environmental engineering professor at Virginia Tech, has studied how drivers respond to messages that employ humor or reference pop culture. He found that they usually thought the signs were effective and were rarely concerned about their appropriateness.

It’s more difficult to figure out if the message changed behavior, he told The Post last year. His researchers hooked 300 people to brain wave monitors to understand their responses to signs such as “Don’t let your tailgate end with a cell mate” and “Texting while driving? Oh cell no.” The results suggested that messages using jokes or wordplay sparked more brain activity.

“I think that’s why DOTs are using them, because they command more attention and drivers notice them,” Shealy said.

But other researchers have criticized the signs. The National Academy of Sciences’ Transportation Research Board convened a panel that wrote a book on how best to use highway signs, The Post reported. The panel gauged the attention and response of 120 people as they read various safety messages on a computerized test. The researchers concluded that messages should be simple and “not include humor, wit, or pop culture references.”

Bruning and Sorenson disagree. Both said they understand and agree with the Federal Highway Administration’s direction to make messages clear and as universally understood as possible. But, they added, there’s a way to sprinkle in some levity so that they resonate with drivers.

Transportation officials who want to deliver clever one-liners might just need to tweak their material a bit. Bruning and others at the Ohio Department of Transportation did that in December. With their “fra-gee-lay” semi-flop from four years earlier in mind, they made another allusion to “A Christmas Story” — “A DUI: Worse than a gift from Aunt Clara,” who buys Ralphie a disappointing pink bunny suit.

For Bruning, the message lured in those who had seen the movie while still making sense to those who hadn’t — and it reminded everyone of the consequences of impaired driving.

Cole said that a well-written message doesn’t have to sacrifice humor to achieve clarity.

“Those messages are there to inform, not entertain,” Cole said, “but I think we can do both at the same time.”

Ian Duncan contributed to this report.

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