Feds Crack Down on Highway Signs That Crack Jokes

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"TURN SIGNALS, THE ORIGINAL INSTANT MESSAGE" whimsical humorous reminder caution message on an expressway overhead LCD road sign in Utah, USA.

Image: Willowpix, iStock
A clever safety reminder on a digital highway sign in Utah.

Need to Know from SafeWise
  • The Federal Highway Administration wants to end funny and clever messages on digital freeway signs due to concerns that they can be confusing and distracting to drivers.
  • The push for straightforward messaging stems from efforts to reverse a pandemic-related increase in roadway fatalities.
  • Roadway fatalities declined by 3.3% in early estimates for 2023 compared to the same period in 2022.
  • States have two years to comply with changes, and may lose federal funding if they don't.

When I lived in Utah, I loved seeing the clever, punny messages displayed on digital freeway signs along I-15—but not everyone is in on the joke. The Federal Highway Administration wants to put an end to funny messages, citing instances where messages have been confusing and distracting to drivers—the opposite of what states are trying to accomplish with their witty messaging.

The road sign rulebook

The Federal Highway Administration (a division of the Department of Transportation) points to an 864-page rulebook known as the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices. This manual establishes standards for road signs and various highway infrastructure. In 2021, federal officials determined that specific, more provocative messages ("unconventional syntax") didn't align with the manual's standards and could pose safety risks.

Now, Congress is pushing for an update to the manual and a crackdown on states that continue to display humorous safety messages and reminders. States have two years to phase out funny messaging for more straightforward, no-nonsense communication. While not confirmed, some states say they've been threatened with losing federal funds if they don't comply.

Advocates for the light-hearted, clever messages like this one from New Jersey, "Slow down. This aint Thunder Road," argue that using humor and pop culture references makes the reminders more memorable. Opponents say there's no evidence that funny signs make the roads safer.

An update to the rulebook has been drafted in response to the two-year directive. The draft spells out exactly what kinds of messaging to avoid, "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."

Roadway fatality trends

Despite the controversy, parties on both sides are working to reverse a rising trend of roadway fatalities that started during the COVID-19 pandemic. Early estimates for 2023 indicate a 3.3% reversal in highway deaths, but the government isn't willing to take any chances.

"After spiking during the pandemic, traffic deaths are continuing to slowly come down—but we still have a long way to go," U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg says in a release from the National Highway Safety Transportation Administration (NHTSA). "Safety has always been the core mission of this Department, and thanks to President Biden, we are delivering unprecedented resources to communities across the country to make their streets safer."

The NHSTA estimates that roadway fatalities have declined in 29 states, but the other 21 (and both Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia) have seen increases. Estimates released in September 2023 show that 19,515 people were killed in vehicle crashes through the first half of 2023—a 3.3% decrease compared to the same period in 2022.

2023's lower fatalities were combined with an increase in miles traveled on U.S. roads, dropping the fatality rate from 1.31 fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles traveled (VMT) in 2022 to the projected rate of 1.24 fatalities per 100 million VMT in the first half of 2023.

What impact (if any) the digital road signs have had on roadway fatalities and injuries is up for debate. But everyone can agree that making U.S. roads safer is the top priority. One thing I know for sure is that I'll miss those clever highway safety reminders.

Rebecca Edwards
Written by
Rebecca is the lead safety reporter and in-house expert for SafeWise.com. She has been a journalist and blogger for over 25 years, with a focus on home and community safety for the past decade. Rebecca spends dozens of hours every month poring over crime and safety reports and spotting trends. Her expertise is sought after by publications, broadcast journalists, non-profit organizations, podcasts, and more. You can find her expert advice and analysis in places like NPR, TechCrunch, The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, The Miami Herald, HGTV, MSN, Reader's Digest, Real Simple, and an ever-growing library of podcast, radio and TV clips in the US and abroad.

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