Tom Saunders, VDOT/Flickr
A variable message sign from 2020 tells sports fans not to drink and drive.
Tom Saunders, VDOT/Flickr
You may get a chuckle from some of the digital message boards above Virginia's interstates, with slogans like, "Driving fast and furious? That's Ludacris" or "Speeding leads to the dark side" and "It's fall, y'all. Buckle up before you leaf."
But now, a Virginia Department of Transportation study is touting scientific evidence that the messages are memorable and effective.
The signs often display relevant information, like telling drivers to slow down when it's icy or how many miles and minutes to a downtown area or congestion ahead.
But in recent years state departments of transportation across the country have gotten more creative —riffing off of pop culture items of the moment or using puns or rhyme schemes to get attention. Virginia started its creative messaging in April 2017. It aims to change behaviors like speeding, drunk driving, distracted driving, and more.
VDOT Chief Deputy Commissioner Rob Cary presented the study to the Commonwealth Transportation Board on Tuesday.
The Cognitive Research Team at Virginia Tech showed 300 drivers nearly 80 messages and used a special brain mapping helmet (a functional near-infrared spectroscopy) that measured reactions. Researchers also asked drivers about comprehension (what is the intended behavior the message is seeking to change?), recall/memorability, and how likely they were to change their own driving habits because of the message.
They sat the drivers down while the messages flashed across the screen. The helmet measured the increase of blood to the prefrontal cortex as a proxy for increased attention. The study found that humor and wordplay, followed by holiday or seasonal messages and pop culture garnered the most brain activity.
It recommended that there should be more messages that evoke an emotional response. And the signs should avoid sports talk — those messages were less understood by 10% of the study group.
"We feel like with the creative messages people tend to take note of this," Jason Bond, a VDOT communications manager said in a slide from the presentation. "Anything that we can do to tie into popular culture or what people can relate to is certainly a way to get those safety messages out there and hopefully change driver behavior."
The signs get plenty of vetting from VDOT's operations, traffic engineering, and communications departments, and even outside partners like the Virginia State Police, DMV, and the Governor's Executive Leadership Team on Highway Safety.
And while the messages are funny (and often go viral on social media) VDOT doesn't want to create any more distracted driving issues.
"We would certainly ask people not to photograph (the signs) as they drive down the road," Cary said. "[If] you're in the passenger seat, it's fine."
The messages might be memorable and change some behavior, but it's unclear what the sign's impacts are on the overall transportation landscape. Virginia saw 105,000 crashes and 847 deaths in 2020, an increase over the prior year. That trend is similar across the country because lower traffic volumes meant higher speeds and more deadly crashes in the pandemic year.
Virginia Transportation Secretary Shannon Valentine says she often hears compliments on the signs and hears from drivers that the signs keep them alert and that they're a good reminder to pay attention.
"When we look at the numbers, they are tragically going up," Valentine said to her staff at the presentation. "Everything we do to help people pay attention, slow down, make sure you're buckled... All of that really matters."
"The impact you're having, I think, is the greatest gift to us all. So I really thank you for that."
Messages used on the roads and in the study include:
- NOBODY PUTS BABY IN A HOT CAR
- LIFE IS A HIGHWAY, DRIVE SAFELY ALL DAY LONG
- BE OUR GUEST, DRIVE POLITELY
- DRIVING SAFELY? I LIKE IT, I LOVE IT
- BE ON SANTA'S NICE LIST, DRIVE POLITELY
- WHAT'S SCARIER — YOUR COSTUME OR YOUR DRIVING?
- BE A FIREWORK, SPARK RESPONSIBLE DRIVING
- ZERO FATALITIES, A GHOUL WE CAN ALL LIVE WITH
- SANTA'S COMING, HAVE YOU BEEN A GOOD DRIVER?
- 843 VA FATALITIES THIS YEAR, DRIVE SAFELY
- DRIVE ALERT 757 FATALITIES, SONS, DAUGHTERS.
- STOP THE HEARTACHE, 843 FATALITIES ON VIRGINIA ROADS IN 2018
- PROTECT YOURSELF, BUCKLE UP
- SECURE THE FUTURE, BUCKLE YOUR CHILD
- SEE YOUR BFF TONIGHT, BUCKLE UP
- BUCKLE UP, SAVE $25 AND YOUR LIFE
- DON'T MAKE ME, STOP THIS CAR! BUCKLE UP
- DUCK, DUCK, BUCKLE UP
- AWWWWW SNAP! YOUR SEAT BELT!
- PEACE, LOVE, SEATBELTS
- BUCKLE UP!
- 9 OF 17 FATALITIES UNBUCKLED THIS YEAR
- GOLD MEDAL DRIVERS DON'T TEXT AND DRIVE
- MAKE IT TO THE END ZONE, DRIVE ALERT
- DON'T LET SAFETY BE A HAIL MARY, DRIVE ALERT
- PLAY BALL! STRIKE THE DISTRACTIONS
- BLOW THE WHISTLE ON DISTRACTED DRIVING
- GET YOUR HEAD OUT OF YOUR APPS
- TEXTING WHILE DRIVING? OH CELL NO
- DON'T DRIVE IN-TEXT-ICATED
- AVOID AN ACCIDENT, PHONES DOWN
- TEXTING & DRIVING IS CLEVER, SAID NO ONE EVER
- WHO YA GONNA CALL? NOBODY. YOU'RE DRIVING
- YOU HAD ME AT "I DON'T TEXT AND DRIVE!"
- THE FORCE IS STRONG WHEN YOU PUT DOWN THE PHONE
- EDDIE SAYS DON'T TEXT & DRIVE, THE TWITTERS FULL
- WE PITY THE FOOL WHO TEXTS & DRIVES
- NO TEXT IS WORTH A LIFE
- MOM NEEDS YOUR HUG, NOT YOUR TEXT
- SPEEDING IS UNSPORTSMANLIKE CONDUCT
- MARCH MADNESS? KEEP AGGRESSION ON THE COURT
- NO SHOT CLOCK DRIVING A CAR, SLOW DOWN
- KEEP RIVALRIES OFF THE ROAD, DRIVE CALM
- COMMUTING ISN'T A COMPETITIVE SPORT, RELAX
This story is from DCist.com, the local news website of WAMU.