A federal agency has urged transportation departments in Mississippi and around the country to refrain from placing cryptic, obscure or humorous messages on electronic highway signs. Nearly all states use electronic highway signs to warn drivers about adverse weather conditions, accidents and traffic delays, but many states also use them to publicize road safety campaigns. According to recent updates to the Federal Highway Administration’s safety manual, signs with funny messages or messages rooted in popular culture could be doing more harm than good.
Brief, clear and legible
The FHA’s manual update stops short of calling for an outright ban of humorous or obscure electronic highway sign messages, but it does ask agencies like the Mississippi Department of Transportation to ensure that the displayed text is simple, brief, legible and clear. The advice has not been received warmly in Arizona where the state’s department of transportation regularly holds contests that allow residents to suggest sign messages. The winners of the last contest, which received more then 3,700 entries, were “I’m just a sign asking drivers to use turn signals” and “Seatbelts always pass a vibe check.” The FHA made its recommendation because it believes obscure or clever highway sign messages can distract drivers and cause motor vehicle crashes.
Electronic sign study
A study conducted by researchers from the University of Minnesota in 2022 adds weight to this argument. The researchers studied the impact that warning signs placed near accident hotspots in Texas had on road safety. The messages on the signs inform drivers about traffic fatalities, but the data suggests that they cause rather than prevent accidents. After analyzing accident data gathered before and after the signs were installed, the researchers concluded that the messages caused about 2,600 crashes and at least 16 deaths.