Caution appropriate on funny road signs

Opinion editor's note: Editorials represent the opinions of the Star Tribune Editorial Board, which operates independently from the newsroom.

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Both clarity and perspective are in order after Stephen Colbert, Bill Maher and other comics poked fun at federal transportation officials for a supposed "ban" on witty road messaging signs.

In reality, there is no ban on signs that remind people to slow down or warn them about hazardous conditions or behavior, sometimes incorporating humor in hopes of connecting with drivers. A recent example from Minnesota: "Cut off? Don't get bad blood. Shake it off," which ran last summer as pop music phenomenon Taylor Swift's world tour touched down in Minneapolis.

Instead, the feds are simply making a recommendation to avoid the use of witticisms or pop culture references, according to a statement provided to an editorial writer this week from the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). That less-than-draconian approach was erroneously reported as a ban by some news media outlets.

The policy recommendation still leaves plenty of room for those who craft these messages in Minnesota and elsewhere — typically, traffic safety engineers and communications staffers — to come up with sayings that resonate with drivers and, more important, spur safety-minded changes on roadways.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) still plans to continue its "Message Monday" campaign, a spokeswoman said, and "we do not anticipate they will change the ways MnDOT shares creative highway safety messages with the public that helps improve safety on Minnesota roadways." There are 484 such electronic message boards on state highways, so most Minnesotans will be able to judge for themselves if the new federal guidance has led to dull signs replacing clever ones.

The MnDOT spokeswoman added that Minnesota's standard practice will be to continue to adhere to federal guidance that "traffic control messages shall have priority over traffic safety campaign messages."

There are those who will still decry the new federal sign recommendations as examples of the "nanny state." Some, as Maher did, might also argue that the new guidance is pointless given billboards' ubiquity. But the signs and what's displayed on them merit more than this knee-jerk response. Further investigation suggests that the feds are correct to be concerned.

Unlike billboards, electronic messaging signs are often on road shoulders. The proximity to drivers commands attention. So does the signs' official status. Drivers accurately assume that the messages come from transportation experts and that there's an urgency to what is being communicated.

When vehicles are traveling at highway speeds, even minute distractions or driving adjustments matter. That may mean that the signs aren't helpful, according to one study co-authored by a Joshua Madsen, an associate professor at the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management.

The study was published in Science, a prestigious research journal, in 2022. Its analysis used data from Texas, which displayed traffic death counts on state roads for one week each month in hopes of making roads safer. The study yielded a counterintuitive result. Instead of helping reduce fatalities, Madsen and co-author Jonathan Hall concluded that displaying death counts on such signs "increases the number of crashes over the next 10 kilometers of roadway by 4.5%."

"Our proposed explanation for this surprising finding is that these 'in-your-face,' 'sobering,' negatively framed messages seize too much attention (i.e., are too salient), interfering with drivers' ability to respond to changes in traffic conditions," the duo wrote.

In an interview, Madsen cautioned about a drawing a one-size-fits-all conclusion from the study, which only looked at fatality messaging, not other types of safe-driving guidance. But, he added, a key point the study raises is that vehicle operators "have a finite amount of attention. Any attention diverted from the task of driving can have negative consequences."

Madsen said more study is clearly needed. He estimated that 26 states have at some point used fatality messaging to boost road safety. He sent the study's results to transportation officials in these states, offering to collaborate and study the effects of safety messaging. So far, none has taken him up on this generous offer.

The feds' caution about electronic messaging is appropriate. If the aim is to improve road safety, let's make sure that messaging is accomplishing this or, at a minimum, not making matters worse.

That may mean that funny signs eventually disappear, removing levity from commuters' time on the road. That's fine. Humor is late-night comedians' job, not that of federal or state transportation officials.