It wasn’t considered funny when the feds told the states that their road signs can no longer be humorous.
Ever since, writers have generally been asking “Can’t they take a joke?”
Here’s how the rule reads: “A CMS should not be used to display a traffic safety campaign message if doing so could adversely affect respect for the sign. 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 as they might be misunderstood or understood only by a limited segment of road users and require greater time to process and understand.”
They’re talking about the changeable message road signs that riff off of movies and other elements of pop culture, use puns or crack dad jokes to draw attention to messages about safe driving.
“The Federal Highway Administration declined to comment on specific road signs and whether they pass muster,” The Wall Street Journal wrote.
“A spokeswoman for the agency said in a written statement that states should follow five principles. Traffic-safety messages should ‘fulfill a need; command attention; convey a clear, simple message; command respect; and provide adequate time for proper response.’”
The Delaware Department of Transportation gave this response to WDEL about the new rule: “Our position is that the messaging we use has a safety theme and therefore is appropriate for use.”
The federal government is giving the states two years to comply. If they don’t, the states could lose money or face the consequences in court. Or as the Federal Highway Administration explains: “The MUTCD is the law governing all traffic control devices. Non-compliance with the MUTCD ultimately can result in the loss of federal-aid funds as well as in a significant increase in tort liability.”
“Studies conflict on the humorous signs’ effectiveness,” The Wall Street Journal wrote. It cited a 2020 study conducted for Virginia’s DOT that found humorous signs “ commanded the most cognitive attention.”
Another study found “a ‘significant proportion’ of drivers didn’t understand messages with humor, wit or pop-culture references.”
Noncompliance with the MUTCD also has its own Facebook group, posting signs that “there is NO way that is MUTCD-compliant.”
DelDOT’s wit with road signs
DelDOT started showing its funny side in 2017 road signs and since then has come up with hundreds of the signs, which it calls “variable messages.”
\A website shows where they are and what they say. From DelDOT’s map page, look in the upper left corner and click on the arrow that follows “map layers.” Then select “variable message.” Click on a sign to see what it says.
“DelDOT’s Facebook page began to get positive feedback from Delaware residents immediately, according to a 2022 posting on DelawareRetiree.com . “Some people have even submitted their own suggested messages.”
And there was a positive profile later in 2022 in The News Journal of Scott Neidert, the DelDOT employee responsible for the wit.
Over the last few months DelDOT’s signs have included rhymes (“Buckle up, Buttercup”), wordplay (“Camp in the parks, not the left lane – Move over”), things that take a moment to register (“Who hates speeding tickets? Raise your right foot”) and a riff on Yoda (“Red school bus lights blinking? Prepare to stop you should be thinking”)
And there was one road sign that works only here: “Dela-WEAR your seatbelt, it’s *Hartly* an inconvenience.”
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