Jan 18, 2024 - News

RIP awesome Virginia highway signs

Illustration of a highway electronic sign doing a standup routine. The sign reads, "So what's the deal with..."

Illustration: Maura Losch/Axios

The end of humorous highway signs is nigh.

What's happening: The Federal Highway Administration's new rules for the road manual says highway signs should be simple, direct and avoid wording "intended to be humorous," Axios' Shauneen Miranda reports.

  • States have two years to comply with the rules.

Why it matters: Transportation agencies across the nation have long embraced catchy, clever and downright lol digital signs.

  • But few have done it as well as the Virginia Department of Transportation (according to us).

Flashback: VDOT started using "themed messages" in April 2017, according to an agency report, and has given Virginians highway sign gems like:

  • Wakanda Driver are you? Safety is King.
  • Awwww Snap! Your Seat Belt!
  • Get Your Head out of Your Apps

And, of course, its most viral sign ever, 2021's: "Driving Fast and Furious? That's Ludacris!"

  • A picture of the Ludacris sign, which was positioned on I-95 near Hanover, made its way to the actor and rapper who posted it to Instagram, writing "Virginia I Love You Back! Can't Believe this is real." National media picked it up from there.

Zoom in: The funny signs seem to work, or at least garner more attention than regular signs, according to a 2021 study by the cognitive research team at Virginia Tech, per NPR.

  • Researchers there used a brain mapping helmet to measure prefrontal cortex activity in 300 Virginia drivers in response to signs.
  • They found that funny signs, or ones that used wordplay, resulted in more brain activity and therefore indicated drivers were more likely to pay attention to them.

Yes, but: The study did not show whether the signs resulted in better or safer driving, which is kind of the point, federal highway officials have argued.

  • Such messaging, the highway administration notes in its manual, "might be misunderstood or understood only by a limited segment of road users and require greater time to process and understand."
  • And that could distract drivers and cause the very safety risks the signs are trying to avoid.

What they're saying: "We are in the process of adopting new guidance from the federal government, so it's too soon to speak to any changes in our approach to changeable message signs," VDOT spokesperson Jessica Cowardin tells Axios.

The bottom line: The awesome signs are out. Or will be soon.
But the feds didn't say anything about how VDOT uses social media, and if this week is any indication, we can count on VDOT for traffic humor joy in some capacity for years to come.

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