Not up to speed: New Jersey DOT ordered to remove snarky highway safety signs

A set of humorous messages on digital highway signs created by the New Jersey Department of Transportation did not amuse federal officials.

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As of Wednesday afternoon, messages such as “Get your head out of your apps” and “Mash potatoes -- not your head” were removed from the NJDOT’s network of 215 permanent digital alert signs statewide, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported.

Similar messages have been used in other states.

“The FHWA (Federal Highway Administration) has instructed us to cease posting these creative safety messages,” Stephen Schapiro, NJDOT’s press manager, told the newspaper in an email on Wednesday.

FHWA officials said in an email to NJ Advance Media late Friday that, “The Federal Highway Administration is aware of the changeable message signs and has reached out to the New Jersey Department of Transportation (NJDOT).”

Some of the other cheeky messages included admonitions to “Slow down. This ain’t Thunder Road,” a nod to New Jersey native Bruce Springsteen; “Don’t cruise when boozed”; “We’ll be blunt, don’t drive high”; and “Hold on to your butts. Help prevent forest fires, a tribute to a scene from “Jurassic Park.”

Federal and state officials rely on a document called the Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices, reported. The signs may have been disallowed due to a 31-paragraph ruling about “Uses of, and Nonstandard Syntax on Changeable Message Signs” issued on Jan. 4, 2021, by the U.S. DOT and the FHWA.

In part, the ruling notes that any messages that rely on hidden meanings or cultural references tend to diminish respect due to their tone and similarity to advertising signs, WNBC-TV reported.

“The display of the associated safety message should be limited to provide optimum impact and must be relevant to the roadway type on which it is displayed,” the rules state.

In an interview with the Inquirer on Tuesday, NJDOT Commissioner Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti said the signs were an effort “to get the attention of folks on the road with messages that are quintessential New Jersey -- kind of in-your-face.”

“We’re meeting drivers where they are, and these messages have caught on in a big way,” she told the newspaper.

Other states have used humor to remind motorists to drive safety. Massachusetts DOT officials employed a Boston accent that told drivers to “Use Yah Blinkah,” in 2014. In 2015, Arizona used Star Wars-related puns to encourage motorists to wear seat belts -- “Trust the force but always buckle up” -- the Arizona Daily Star reported.

Other states have used slogans that urge motorists to “click it or ticket,” referring to mandatory use of seat belts.

“Aggressive driving is a major issue,” Mary Beth Caracci told the Inquirer. Her family has owned the South Jersey Driving School in Moorestown for nearly 40 years.

“Personally, I’m not a fan of sarcasm,” Caracci told the newspaper. “But any sign that reminds us to think about being better drivers is OK with me.”



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