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No more humorous highway signs to hoot at

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

It's the end of the road for the funny, punny one-liners that some states have been putting up on electronic signs along freeways. The Federal Highway Administration has new rules about those displays. Ohio Public Radio's Karen Kasler reports.

KAREN KASLER, BYLINE: Safety messages for drivers have long been serious.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Drive sober or get pulled over.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Cops write tickets because seatbelts save lives. So click it or ticket.

KASLER: But in the last few years, states have been using electronic billboards that show traffic and weather alerts to promote buckling seatbelts, obeying the speed limit and not driving impaired, ramping up their messages with a little more zip. In Arizona, drivers around July 4 have seen the message, only sparklers should be lit. Around Halloween, hocus pocus, drive with focus in Texas. And in Ohio, visiting in-laws? Slow down. Get there late.

MATT BRUNING: When I tell people I work at ODOT, a lot of times the first question they ask me is, well, are you the guy that does the signs?

KASLER: Matt Bruning speaks for the Ohio Department of Transportation, which has been using humorous messages since 2015.

BRUNING: And it's funny when they'll quote off some that they remember. I mean, that's what we're trying to do. We're trying to get those safety messages through to people.

KASLER: New Jersey advised drivers on social media in 2022 to stop taking photos of signs or, quote, "we will turn this car around and go back to the old messages." The state was ordered to take down some messages by the Federal Highway Administration. An FHA study in June 2016 showed 54% of drivers reported changing behaviors after seeing specific messages on electronic signs. Repeated phrases can feel stale after a while, so some states started revving up those messages to make them more memorable. But Bruning says the FHA is putting the brakes on with an update to its manual on those signs.

BRUNING: We need to limit references to pop culture that maybe aren't widely understood. It also encourages us to make sure that any reference we put up is widely understood.

KASLER: Tripp Shealy is a professor of civil engineering at Virginia Tech. He led a study in 2020 of how signs on highways can affect behavior. He says messages that tried to be funny and specific were effective.

TRIPP SHEALY: Something that's funny with a behavior change of be safe is not very specific. What do you do with that, right? But get your head out of your apps is wordplay, humor and very direct, right? Don't look at your phone.

KASLER: The FHA said in a statement that states are expected to exercise good judgment in how and when they use these kinds of signs. States have two years to adjust to these new guidelines, but Utah put funny messages in the rearview mirror in 2022, saying the idea had run its course. For NPR News, I'm Karen Kasler in Columbus.

(SOUNDBITE OF GARY NUMAN SONG, "CARS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Gurjit Kaur
Gurjit Kaur is a producer for NPR's All Things Considered. A pop culture nerd, her work primarily focuses on television, film and music.