Those electronic message signs on Utah’s highways have developed a bit of an attitude in recent weeks.
The lighted road signs — designed to provide real-time information on such things as weather alerts, traffic accidents and estimated travel times to specific exits — are now beginning to sport short, clever messages, like:
• “STEERING WHEEL: NOT A HANDS FREE DEVICE”
• “IT’S NOT A RACE, LEAVE SOME SPACE”
• “THAT SEAT BELT LOOKS GOOD ON YOU”
• “TURN SIGNALS, THE ORIGINAL INSTANT MESSAGE”
It’s all part of a campaign launched earlier this summer by the Utah Department of Transportation, called “Message Mondays.” Each Monday, a different eye-catching slogan is shared on about half of the 160 variable message signs, or VMS boards, around the state. And Message Mondays is being held in conjunction with another campaign, called “Fatality Fridays,” wherein the message boards list the number of fatality-free days in the past week.
“Yeah, we’ve got fun names for both,” admits Lisa Miller, traveler information manager for the Utah Department of Transportation.
Miller says both campaigns are brand new this summer.
“Our goal is to really get in front of people, and encourage them that there are things they can do to drive more safely,” she said. “We’re trying to create a dialogue.”
It appears to be working.
While the occasional motorist complains about a UDOT “nanny state” attitude in the messages, transportation officials say most motorists appreciate the signs.
“Ninety-nine percent of our feedback has been positive,” Miller said. “We’re even getting people contacting us, asking, ‘Have you considered this message?’ Then they give us an idea for a message to go on the signs.”
UDOT borrowed the idea from several other states that have been posting clever messages for motorists — including Iowa, Missouri and Tennessee.
Linda Wilson Horn, communications coordinator for the Missouri Department of Transportation, says her state initially added message boards along rural interstates back in 2008. The state’s transportation director didn’t like the idea of the boards being blank when there wasn’t specific traffic or weather info to impart, so he instructed them to put up standard safety messages like “BUCKLE UP.”
“Simple, boring,” Horn explained. “But then, a little over a year ago, they asked us to beef up our messages. If we can make people laugh, go ‘Huh,’ or think about it, it helps get the message across.”
So in April 2014, Missouri motorists began seeing edgier messages on the state’s electronic signs. Messages like “PUT DOWN YOUR PHONE AND DRIVE,” and “TEXT YOUR BFF LATER.” Horn said they’ll generally run three or four messages in a row on a specific topic. So motorists might get one message about wearing their seat belts on one sign, then 30 miles down the road a different message on the same topic.
Horn says the ideas for Missouri’s signs come from everywhere.
“Some of them I borrow outright, some I tweak,” she said.
For example, a Massachusetts Department of Transportation campaign featured a sign, written phonetically in a traditional Boston accent, advising motorists to “USE YAH BLINKAH.” So Horn’s office, alluding to Missouri’s well-known state motto, localized it with the sign: “CHANGING LANES? SHOW ME YOUR BLINKER.”
Meanwhile, in Iowa, the state’s department of transportation began hosting its own Message Mondays back in August 2013.
“We were trying to step outside the typical government messaging, and be a little clever,” said Andrea Henry, director of strategic communications for the Iowa Department of Transportation.
Henry said the entire goal of the clever messages is to promote driver safety behind the wheel.
“There’s a real purpose here, to create some safety awareness,” she said.
An example of message signs that Iowa motorists have seen in recent months is “GOOD DRIVERS HAVE SHIFTY EYES” — referring to the idea a motorist should be constantly shifting his or her eyes to scan the road ahead. Another sign, used on May 4, read “MAY THE FOURTH BE WITH YOU: TEXT I WILL NOT.” Iowa DOT has also used popular culture references, like “KEEP CALM AND DRIVE ON.”
But Henry says the message they’ve received the most attention for was, “GET YOUR HEAD OUT OF YOUR APPS.”
“I have to enunciate that one whenever I tell people about that message,” she quipped.
Miller says UDOT has created a library of dozens of messages gleaned from various places, so motorists probably won’t have to worry about seeing duplicates anytime soon.
“And when we hear from someone, we have added their suggestions to the library,” she said. “So we have enough to keep us going for awhile.”
But Miller also says that Utah, unlike Iowa, isn’t quite as edgy with its messages. She says UDOT won’t be borrowing that “head-in-apps” message anytime soon.
“While we think that’s really creative, we don’t want people to be pulling over and taking pictures of these, or crashing because of them,” Miller said.
Miller said Utah won’t be borrowing a certain Missouri DOT sign, either, that reads: “TEXTING WHILE DRIVING? OH CELL NO.”
“We really want to create an impact and create a dialogue, but we don’t want people to think we’re being silly about it, or we’re wasting their time, she said.”
One other message that is popular in other states but wouldn’t fly in Utah, according to Miller, is the double entendre, “DRIVE HAMMERED, GET NAILED.”
“We decided that one will not fly here,” she said. “In Utah, our population’s a little bit different … so the connotation here may be different. … With some of these messages we think, ‘Wow, that one’s really clever, but I could not see us posting it in Utah.’ ”
Missouri’s Horn says her office is cognizant that people are reading these messages while operating motor vehicles, so they try to keep them short and easily understandable.
“One criticism we have had of our boards is that the message itself is distracting,” Horn said. “We have a couple of people who say, ‘Don’t tell me to keep my eyes on the road when reading your sign is making me look away from the road.’ We have a few members of the public who like to repeatedly tell us our signs are a distraction.”
But Horn believes they’re no different than the green highway signs that point the way to places like Ogden and Salt Lake City.
Sgt. Todd Royce of the Utah Highway Patrol says the UDOT message signs are kept short and simple enough that he doesn’t believe they cause a distraction. And he likes the new attitude the UDOT signs are exhibiting this summer.
“Anything that can get people to think about their driving habits and create some change is good,” he said.