Jan 19, 2024 - News

Farewell to California's "Star Wars" freeway signs

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

Illustration: Maura Losch/Axios

Have you spotted any of Caltrans' clever freeway signs? Enjoy them while you can.

Driving the news: The Federal Highway Administration is phasing out funny messaging over the next couple of years, saying this type of wording on the road could "adversely affect respect for the sign."

Details: States have two years to implement the new guidelines, according to the administration in its updated manual released last month.

  • The administration, a division of the Department of Transportation, said messaging should be "simple, direct, brief, legible, and clear" as well as "relevant to the road user on the roadway on which the message is displayed."

Signs should avoid messaging with "obscure or secondary meanings," including pop culture references or anything "intended to be humorous," per the administration.

  • Such messaging, the administration notes, "might be misunderstood or understood only by a limited segment of road users and require greater time to process and understand."

What they're saying: "The safety of all road users is the priority," a spokesperson for the administration said in a statement to Axios on Tuesday.

  • The administration "supports the use of changeable message signs, which are operated by state transportation departments, in conjunction with traffic safety campaign[s]," the spokesperson said.
  • "States are expected to exercise good judgment in how and when they use changeable message signs for traffic safety messages, and in their specific wording of the messages."

State of play: Caltrans is more reserved in its use of witty sayings on highway signs than other states like Massachusetts and Arizona, which holds its own safety message contest.

  • But in recent years, the California agency has taken steps to get creative with its messaging.
  • That includes "Drinking and driving puts you on the naughty list" during Christmas season; "Single in HOV? Get a real date, not a court date"; and "Aggressive driving is a path to the dark side."
  • Caltrans primarily uses changeable message signs for traffic management, such as when a lane is closed or a detour is needed, spokesperson Nicole Mowers said in an email to Axios.
  • "Any messaging aside from that is usually part of a larger media campaign, such as 'Tailgating Is for Football Not Highways,' reminding drivers to be safe on the highways," Mowers added, noting that all Caltrans messages follow federal guidelines.

The big picture: Federal officials have regarded these fun messages as a hazard for years, arguing that they might pose hazards because of distractions or even confusion among drivers, per the Washington Post.

Yes, but: A 2020 study by the Virginia Transportation Research Council found that messaging with wordplay, rhyming, humor and/or pop culture references ranked high in effectiveness among drivers.

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