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‘This ain’t Thunder Road’: N.J.’s highway safety messages were too sassy for the feds

“You can only say ‘buckle up. don’t drink, and slow down in work zones’ so many times," said one official.

The New Jersey Department of Transportation is road testing digital alerts that use humor to relay serious safety messages. This is one of a pair of messages used during the recent forest fire season in South Jersey.
The New Jersey Department of Transportation is road testing digital alerts that use humor to relay serious safety messages. This is one of a pair of messages used during the recent forest fire season in South Jersey.Read moreNJ DOT

The digital alerts that debuted on Garden State highway signs last month may have displayed a bit too much Jersey attitude.

As of Wednesday afternoon, messages such as “Get your head out of your apps” andmash potatoes — not your head” are no longer visible on the New Jersey Department of Transportation’s network of 215 permanent digital alert signs throughout the state. Similar messages have been used in other states, including Utah, Pennsylvania, Delaware, California, and Tennessee.

“The FHWA [Federal Highway Administration] has instructed us to cease posting these creative safety messages,” Stephen Schapiro, NJDOT’s press manager, said in an email Wednesday afternoon.

In a statement, the FHWA said that it “is aware of the changeable message signs and has reached out to NJDOT.” Representatives from FHWA did not comment on why New Jersey was told to stop using the messages.

In an interview Tuesday, NJDOT Commissioner Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti described the signs as an effort “to get the attention of folks on the road with messages that are quintessential New Jersey — kind of in-your-face.”

“We’re meeting drivers where they are, and these messages have caught on in a big way.”

“We’ll be blunt — don’t drive high,” read one sign.

“Hold on to your butts — help prevent forest fires,” said another.

“Slow down. This ain’t Thunder Road,” blared a sign for fans of New Jersey son Bruce Springsteen’s popular tune.

Delaware, which Gutierrez-Scaccetti credits as her inspiration, began deploying similar attention-grabbing safety warnings in 2017, and Pennsylvania also is using what PennDot calls “nontraditional, creative messages.” FHWA did not respond to questions about whether other states would be asked to change their roadside messaging.

In New Jersey, the edgier alerts initially led some drivers to conclude that the system had been hacked.

And on its Twitter account, NJDOT posted a Photoshopped image of a driving cat, along with a friendly warning: “We’re glad you’re enjoying our new safety messages, but please don’t take pictures of the [signs] while driving! It’s very dangerous and defeats the message we’re trying to drive home.”

Gutierrez-Scaccetti said the safety messages, as well as the effort to use humor to connect with drivers, were serious.

“The two biggest messages we want to get across are to slow down, and to obey the state’s Move Over Law,” she said. “These messages are just one of many ways we’re trying to make our roads safer.”

According to the New Jersey State Police, the number of vehicle crash fatalities statewide this year, as of Wednesday, stood at 618 — 11 more than the 607 reported in all of 2021. The number of fatalities in 2020 was 516.

“Aggressive driving is a major issue,” said Mary Beth Caracci, whose family has owned the South Jersey Driving School in Moorestown for nearly 40 years.

“Personally, I’m not a fan of sarcasm,” she said. “But any sign that reminds us to think about being better drivers is OK with me.”

Kate Parkhurst, a retiree who lives in Voorhees, spotted one of the new messages while heading toward the Shore on I-195. “It was the one about ‘Does your car have a turn signal?’ and it made me laugh out loud,” she said. “Normally, these signs tell you something straight up. But I think it gets the point across better if it makes you laugh.”

At Delaware’s Department of Transportation, highway safety engineer Scott Neibert said the state decided to “spice it up and turn up the volume a little bit” because standard safety messages have their limits.

“You can only say ‘buckle up. don’t drink, and slow down in work zones’ so many times,” he said. “With a different approach, the message gets remembered and talked about. People spread the safety message whether they intend to or not.”

This year, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation also started adding humor to the traditional mix of safety messages on its statewide network of 748 digital signs.

“We looked at many states’ nontraditional, humorous messaging [and] it’s possible Delaware was one of them,” said Jennifer Kuntch, PennDot’s deputy communications director.

The new safety messages on Pennsylvania highways include seasonal greetings as well:

“Only Rudolph should drive lit — plan a sober ride.”

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