No, feds aren’t banning humorous messages on Arizona freeway signs

Jan 18, 2024, 2:00 PM

An Arizona freeway sign says, "Drive like the person your dog thinks you are"...

"Drive like the person your dog thinks you are" was a winner in the Arizona Department of Transportation's 2019 safety message contest. (Arizona Department of Transportation Photo)

(Arizona Department of Transportation Photo)

PHOENIX – Apologies to Mark Twain, but reports on the death of Arizona’s quirky freeway sign messages have been greatly exaggerated.

Recent news coverage interpreted changes to the U.S. Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) as a fatal blow to creative messaging on overhead electronic freeway signs.

However, the agency said the manual section at the center of the controversy is actually guidance, not a ban of any sorts.

“The new edition does not include a ban on humor or pop culture references on changeable message signs. Rather, it includes a recommendation to avoid the use of humor and pop culture references in changeable message signs that may confuse or distract drivers,” an FHWA spokesperson said in a statement to KTAR News on Thursday.

“State and local agencies are expected to use good judgment based on MUTCD longstanding principles for message signs that call for them to fulfill a need; command attention; convey a clear, simple message; command respect; and provide adequate time for proper response.”

The Arizona Department of Transportation has famously used humorous messages on its 300-plus electronic signs to encourage safe driving for years.

ADOT’s greatest hits include nods to Taylor Swift (“Cut off? Don’t get bad blood, shake it off”), “Hamilton” (“History has its eyes on you, slow down”), and “Star Wars” (“Focused driving is the way of the Jedi”).

The agency also holds annual safety message contests, with the winners getting to see their words in lights over state freeways. The two 2023 winners were “Seatbelts always pass the vibe check” and “I’m just a sign asking a driver to use turn signals.”

Before the FHWA clarification, ADOT and Gov. Katie Hobbs both spoke out against a potential ban in statements sent to KTAR News.

Here’s ADOT’s response:

ADOT is disappointed in new federal guidelines discouraging use of creative traffic safety messages on overhead highway signs. Since 2015 these messages have been well received by Arizonans, promoting safe driving on our roadways. ADOT is continuing to analyze all of the changes in the new edition of the federal Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices to determine how they will be implemented.

And this is what Hobbs had to say:

Arizona has led the nation in kick-starting conversations about traffic safety with our innovative and humorous highway message signs, prompting even national, high-profile figures to join the discussion. These signs have been incredibly popular with drivers, and are an important tool for engaging the public in traffic safety awareness. We hope the federal government reconsiders and allows the fun and informative phrases to continue on Arizona’s highway message signs.

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No, feds aren’t banning humorous messages on Arizona freeway signs