Feds Frown Upon Humorous Electronic Traffic Signs

Gets the message across just fine (image: MN DOT via Minn. Star-Tribune)

The various book bans that have been oozing forth around the country are a far greater disgrace—in Florida some school libraries pulled dictionaries (temporarily) to review them for “inappropriate content”—but this one is also bad. And here, too, civil disobedience is the only patriotic response.

The Associated Press reports that according to new federal rules, “humorous and quirky messages” on electronic traffic signs will be “banned in 2026.” That isn’t quite true, but the reality is bad enough. The AP is referring to the Federal Highway Administration’s Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, otherwise known by the mellifluous acronym “MUTCD.” If you’d like to learn more about the MUTCD or read it for yourself, you can do that here. But be warned—I guess this shouldn’t be surprising, but this manual is 1,100 pages long.

Did I read all of it? Of course! But in the interest of time I will only make fun of section 2L.07, “Traffic Safety Campaign Messages.” I will now immediately break that promise by noting that, to judge by phrases like “no hand-held phone use by driver signs” and “traffic does not stop plaques,” it appears that the U.S. government has almost completely run out of funding for hyphens. Not our biggest problem at the moment, but not great news either.

The purpose of the MUTCD is “to establish uniform national criteria for the use of traffic[-]control devices,” and that is truly important. It would be bad, for example, if a red octagonal sign meant “STOP” in one state and “FLOOR IT!” in the next state over. Accordingly, the MUTCD is incorporated into the Code of Federal Regulations, and (at least according to it) all 50 states have adopted it anyway. So a standard defined in the MUTCD is binding everywhere.

This includes the standards in Section 2L that apply to “changeable message signs” like the one pictured above. (Page 510, if you’re following along, but why are you doing that?) There are all kinds of standards regarding color, brightness, legibility, and so forth. There are also some helpful examples of proper “message construction.” For example, instead of “RT LN CLSD 1 MI,” they suggest “RIGHT LANE CLOSED 1 MILE.” All very sensible.

But now, apparently for the first time, the Federal Highway Administration has turned its attention to humor.

When a CMS is used to display a traffic safety campaign, the message should be simple, direct, brief, legible, and clear…. A CMS should not be used to display a traffic safety campaign message if doing so could adversely affect respect for the sign. 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 as they might be misunderstood or understood only by a limited segment of road users and require greater time to process and understand. Similarly, slogan-type messages and the display of statistical information should not be used.

MUTCD § 2L.07, ¶ 04 (emphasis added).

Respect for the sign?! This aggression will not stand.

The basic point—that safety messages should be clear—is fine. But as the MUTCD itself says elsewhere, when the identical message is repeated over and over, people quit paying attention. So as long as the message still gets through, there is nothing wrong with at least trying to make it funny. That might actually help get the message through, in fact. This thinking is why some states, like Minnesota, have deliberately chosen “lighter” messages, as the Star Tribune reported:

Before “Message Monday,” MnDOT used its electronic message boards sparingly to display messages such as “1 in 4 Deaths Caused by Drunken Drivers” and “1 in 5 Traffic Deaths are Speed Related.” But when traffic fatalities failed to drop, the agency instituted “Message Monday” as a way to deliver hard hitting messages — to wear seat belts, obey speed limits and not drive impaired — with a lighter, more positive tone.

The results won’t always be wildly funny—you only have so many characters, after all—but some are pretty good. (I like the one above. “VISITING IN-LAWS? SLOW DOWN, GET THERE LATE” is also pretty good.) Ban obscure or confusing messages, sure. But the government has no business trying to regulate humor. (Except for puns, which should carry the death penalty.)

And, good news—the paragraph above isn’t actually binding. According to the MUTCD, any “statement of required, mandatory, or specifically prohibitive practice” will be labeled a “Standard.” But this paragraph is in a section labeled “Guidance,” which means it’s “a statement of recommended practice in typical situations….” And that means attempts at humor—or, God forbid, disrespect for The Sign—are not banned. They are discouraged. But that’s only going to encourage people.

Initial reports suggest that it is in fact encouraging state officials in charge of these signs, or at least those in Minnesota, where an official was quoted as saying that she “did not expect the new manual to affect our current practices,” or bureaucratic words to that effect. (The Star Tribune suddenly started asking me to subscribe, and I don’t remember exactly what she said.) I strongly approve.

A good thing for a Minnesota sign to say this week might be “CURRENT SIGN PRACTICES UNAFFECTED—BUT SLOW THE #*%& DOWN,” or something along those lines. “PUNSTERS SUBJECT TO EXECUTION WITHOUT TRIAL” would also be good, although not technically a traffic-control message.