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Feds coming after funny traffic billboards?
Officials tell New Jersey to stop, but Iowa does the same
DES MOINES — Iowa’s digital traffic billboards have gotten into the holiday spirit, with safety messages the past two weeks borrowing from famously funny lines from classic Christmas movies.
“Why is the road wet, Todd?”
“Slow down, Margo!”
That exchange, which appeared on Iowa’s digital traffic billboards across the state earlier this month, was a reference to the movie “Christmas Vacation.” And these week’s message took inspiration from the movie “Elf.”
“I like to buckle. Buckling is my favorite!”
But while the Iowa Department of Transportation appears to be feeling holly and jolly about its signs, could there be a Grinch looming out there, one that could threaten to halt the state’s traffic safety messaging program?
It is already happening in at least one other state.
The Federal Highway Administration instructed the New Jersey transportation department to stop posting creative traffic safety messages on its digital billboards, the state agency told the Philadelphia Inquirer last month.
New Jersey employs a similar traffic safety messaging program, according to the Inquirer, with recent messages like “Get your head out of your apps,” “Mash potatoes — not your head,” and the delightfully local, “Slow down. This ain’t Thunder Road,” a reference to a song by New Jersey native Bruce Springsteen.
Many states have similar safety programs, including Iowa neighbors Wisconsin and Illinois.
The Federal Highway Administration confirmed to the Inquirer that it reached out to the New Jersey Department of Transportation about the changeable message signs, but did not say why. Since the initial revelation, a dozen federal lawmakers from New Jersey pressed the federal agency to explain, multiple news outlets reported, but so far it has not.
The agency also did not respond to a request for information from The Gazette. An Iowa Department of Transportation spokeswoman last week said the federal agency has not reached out to Iowa about its program.
Iowa’s program was launched in 2013 as “Message Mondays” and in 2021 was renamed “Roadside Chat.” The program’s goal is use attention-grabbing traffic safety messages, which the Iowa DOT categorizes as thought-provoking, familiar popular culture messages, or holiday-themed. The Iowa DOT website says the messages were moved to Fridays to increase awareness near the three days that historically have the highest number of fatal crashes: Friday through Sunday.
The Iowa program on its website takes suggestions from the public for possible “Roadside Chat” messages.
On the other days, the digital traffic billboards in addition to current, local traffic conditions display traffic safety statistics, including the number of traffic fatalities during the current year.
“Starting a conversation about traffic safety that leads to drivers changing their behavior behind the wheel — that’s always been the goal of the Iowa Department of Transportation’s (Roadside Chat) program,” says an explainer on the Iowa DOT website. “Since the inception of the program in August 2013, those thought-provoking sayings that appear on the overhead message boards on interstates and major highways … were developed to help travelers understand the number of fatalities that occur on Iowa’s roads and increase the visibility of traffic safety.”
But some research has showed clever or humorous traffic safety message may have the opposite of their intended effect.
Research conducted in 2022 and sponsored by the Governors Highway Safety Association and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration produced a report that concluded digital traffic signs with witty or humorous messages can have “adverse consequences on driving behavior” for some drivers.
“To summarize, using humor, wit, and pop culture references in a BTS (behavioral traffic safety) message increased the percentage of subjects not correctly perceiving the safety topic(s) in the message. For those subjects, this lack of understanding or proper interpretation of the message adversely affected their ability to simultaneously perform a secondary task requiring both visual attention and use of fine motor skills,” the report says.
“Given that driving in general also involves visual multitasking and the use of fine motor skills while viewing VMS (variable message signs) messages, these results imply that displaying BTS messages involving humor, wit, or pop culture references could have adverse consequences on driving behavior for motorists who are unable to correctly interpret those messages.”
Brett Tjepkes, chief of the Iowa Governor’s Traffic Safety Bureau in the state Department of Public Safety, said he was not aware of the 2022 report, but that he appreciates the Iowa DOT’s effort to increase safety on the state’s roadways.
“We do value our work with the DOT and their safety messaging,” Tjepkes said. “We want to do everything we can to change driving behavior so people don’t engage in risky driving habits. I’m sure that’s the intent of the (digital billboard) messaging.”
There had been 320 traffic fatalities in Iowa through Friday, which is already past the five-year average of 311, according to Iowa DOT data. The 356 traffic deaths recorded in 2021 were the most since 2016, when there were 402.
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