NCDOT stays on the straight and narrow when it comes to their signs

NCDOT stays on the straight and narrow when it comes to their signs

February 14th, 2023

Take a drive into Virginia and you’ll probably see at least one of the big overhead message boards along the interstates or the Chesapeake Expressway with a humorous take on highway safety.

“That seat belt looks good on you.” “You’re not a firework/don’t drive lit.” “Driving Fast and Furious? Don’t be Ludacris.” “We’ll be blunt/Don’t drive high.”

But don’t expect dad jokes on the signs that line North Carolina highways. And if federal officials have their way, all states will have to get back on the straight and narrow.

The Washington Post had a story on Monday detailing how state’s like Virginia, New Jersey and others have been spicing up their variable message signs to encourage safer driving.

In northeastern North Carolina, there are eight of the permanent signs mounted alongside major highways such as N.C. 168 and U.S. 158 in Currituck County, N.C. 12 at Whalebone Junction, in Rodanthe and Ocracoke, and on U.S. 64 in Washington County.

Variable message sign along U.S. 158 in Coinjock alerts drivers to the mandatory evacuation issued for the Outer Banks ahead of Hurricane Dorian in 2019. [Sam Walker photo]

“The N.C. Department of Transportation aims to protect the safety of the traveling public through the use of succinct messaging on digital signs,” said NCDOT spokes person Jamie Kritzer.

Messages on the signs in our area are usually limited to basic travel information: Road closings and construction, sand and water on the road along Pea Island, updates on ferry operations, severe weather warnings, occasionally a reminder about state laws on cell phone use or driving while impaired, and active AMBER alerts.

Variable message sign in Ocracoke village. [Peter Vankevich/Ocracoke Observer photo]

The signs in Currituck will also show the distance and estimated driving time to Kitty Hawk or the state line.

Or they may just be dark, as is the case for most of the signs along U.S. 64 between the Outer Banks and Raleigh.

“Several years ago, NCDOT chose not to pursue some of the more colorful messages after the Federal Highway Administration indicated their intentions to curtail those signs through the rulemaking process,” Kritzer said.

Back in 2020, the Virginia Department of Transportation posted a Twitter thread all about their signs.

And while it rarely happens, some ne’er-do-well will find a way to take matters into their own hands on what the signs say.

The debate over the messaging has even led VDOT to ask researchers to see if it works, DCist reported in 2021.

The Post reports the National Academy of Sciences assembled a review team that published a book on the messages last year, while one study used brain scans to monitor responses to the signs.

Federal transportation officials have been trying to get states to hold the jokes for awhile, issuing a memo to state highway departments in 2021 that said to scale back some of the racier, “unconventional syntax” that goes against standards set in the 864-page Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices.

Some are listening, others not so much.

Russ Martin, senior director of policy and government relations at the Governors Highway Safety Association, told The Post that states should be free to use them for general safety bulletins.

“We need to have ways to refresh messages and change and innovate to reach new audiences,” said Martin, whose organization represents state traffic safety agencies.

That last edition of the manual dates to 2009, and the federal infrastructure law passed last year calls for the Federal Highway Administration to update the standards.

“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,” the draft changes state.

Some states and safety advocacy groups have pushed back, calling for that language to be struck from the manual. Martin said such a provision could leave federal highway officials in the position of judging just how funny is too funny.

“You start getting into having to make subjective value judgments about things,” he said.

So while it may seem North Carolina is being stiff with its signs, everybody else may have to park the puns sooner than later.

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