The Wordsmiths Behind Those Catchy Highway Signs

May 25, 2018

Despite rising gas prices and rain in the forecast, more drivers are expected this Memorial Day Weekend.   And one thing you may notice -- some memorably worded digital safety signs from the Virginia Department of Transportation.  The signs might read, “Signal Intention for Crash Prevention” or “See the Cone … Respect the Zone.”   WMRA’s Jessie Knadler talks to the wordsmiths at VDOT to find out what’s going on with those catchy signs.

[Highway traffic]

There was a time not so long ago when all that was required of a highway safety sign was to get to the point: “Slow Down. Merge Left. Don’t Drink and Drive.” Good advice. Not memorable.

But we now live in a world where traffic fatalities are actually increasing. They’re up 20 percent in Virginia, according to VDOT. This, despite big advances in road and vehicle technology.

Why is this happening? Five big not totally surprising reasons: speeding, driving without a seat belt, distraction (hello, smart phone), drowsiness and driving while impaired. VDOT spokesperson Shannon Marshall:

SHANNON MARSHALL: VDOT’s number one priority is safety so we’ve been using catchy messages in hopes of getting drivers’ attention to start a conversation about safe driving.

It’s part of VDOT’s year old campaign to get people to focus more while driving.

DAN TAYLOR: Really the point is for people to start just looking up at the signs and start reading it. 

Dan Taylor is VDOT’s Statewide Traffic Operations Specialist. He’s the guy in charge of creating the clever messages.

TAYLOR: This is one of the fun things we get to do.

Are you ready for some of his team’s more inspired quips? Here goes:

“Drive Hammered, Get Nailed”

“5 Minutes Late Won’t Kill You – Speeding Can”

Here’s one for football season: “Don’t Fumble – Tackle Drunk Driving”

This one was tied to the release of the last Star Wars: “Speeding Leads to the Dark Side” 

And here’s one for Halloween: “Don’t Become the Walking Dead”

Creating catchy highway signs presents an interesting writing challenge.

How do you capture attention targeted to a specific driving misbehavior from motorists flying by at 70 miles an hour?  That’s both pithy and serious? And do it in 24 characters or less? It’s not easy.

TAYLOR:  The goal is to tie it to a behavior. So a motorist will drive unbuckled. They’ll see a quick little quip about driving buckled.

Sometimes fatality statistics will follow the quip.

TAYLOR:  So then maybe they’re inclined to change their behavior. So it’s like, here’s an action, here’s a result.

Taylor says he looks to other states for inspiration. Turns out Utah’s and Iowa’s transportation departments are hotbeds of captivating safety signs. The Iowa guys riff on Taylor Swift lyrics.  Utah ran a sign over Thanksgiving that said the state is thankful for safe drivers. Taylor co-opted that one for Virginia.

TAYLOR: We’re not stealing it. It’s just a good idea.

Once Taylor’s team signs off on the phrasing, the five VDOT regional centers decide what signs they want for their specific areas. It’s not necessarily tied to where the most accidents occur but where management thinks the signs will receive the most eyeballs.

TAYLOR:  You might see it on social media. You meet see someone retweet about it with their comment about how funny the sign was, or whatever.  

But clever safety signs can also backfire.

One of Taylor’s most buzzed about signs was inspired by the blockbuster Black Panther.  It read “Wakanda … Driver Are You? Safety Is King.”

TAYLOR: The creative process is what it is. The Wakanda thing come to me in one night.  

(If you don’t know what Wakanda is, you may want to get out more.) But it was so clever that drivers in Northern Virginia were actually slowing down as they neared it. This caused congestion.  See? Creating a good safety sign is tricky. Marshall again:

MARSHALL:  Anytime there is congestion or distraction related to it we will absolutely blink them out until it clears.

“Blink it out.” That’s VDOT language for making the sign go blank.

As for whether the signs actually change driver behavior, that’s really difficult to measure. Taylor is fine in his role as influencer.

TAYLOR: If we can influence one person, great. If we can influence 200,000 people, that’s the icing on the cake.

As Virginians head out for Memorial Day weekend, maybe, just maybe some will actually ponder Wakanda Driver … ARE you?