Nick Vadala The Philadelphia Investigator
Traffic safety messages with a cheeky New Jersey flair began hitting the streets of the Garden State last month, but last week they disappeared as suddenly as they appeared.
Now Sen. Cory Booker, DN.J., Rep. Donald Norcross, D-1st, Rep. Jeff Van Drew, R-2nd, and others want to know why.
Booker and his colleagues raised concerns about the messages being pulled in a letter this week to Acting Administrator of the Federal Highway Administration Stephanie Pollack. The messages – including witty messages like “Get your head out of your apps” and “Slow down. This isn’t the Thunder Road” — was the New Jersey Department of Transportation’s way of providing “an absolutely ideal way to raise safety awareness and potentially save lives.”
So what’s up? Similar signs are in use in other states including Pennsylvania, Delaware, Utah, California and Tennessee, The Philadelphia Inquirer previously reported. And as Booker and 11 of his colleagues from the House and Senate note in their letter, the campaign was generally well received.
“These essential messages from New Jersey have had significant positive resonance across the state and have helped warn motorists, both domestic and international, to take proper precautions,” the letter reads.
Now, Jersey congressmen are asking the FHWA for an explanation, as well as any data or evidence the agency used to inform its decision to retract the state’s news. The decision, the letter said, was made “without providing NJDOT with a comprehensive, data-supported justification.”
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“Please provide some insight as to why the FHWA decided to block New Jersey’s specific approach to warning motorists,” Booker and the company write.
NJDOT rolled out the messages in October across its network of 215 permanent digital warning signs statewide. But on November 14, they were shut down — an event prompted by instructions from FHWA to “stop publishing these creative safety messages,” NJDOT press manager Stephen Schapiro told the Inquirer. The FHWA did not comment on why NJDOT was ordered to stop using the messages, and did not respond to questions about whether other states were being asked to change their own curbside messages.
NJDOT Commissioner Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti credited Delaware as the inspiration for the campaign, with the First State adopting a similar version back in 2017. Pennsylvania, meanwhile, is taking a similar approach, using what PennDOT calls “non-traditional, creative messaging.”
The Garden State’s version, Gutierrez-Scaccetti told the Inquirer earlier this month, was an attempt to “get people’s attention on the street with messages that are quintessential New Jersey — sort of in your face.”
And they drew attention, both from the media and apparently from the government. But according to a recent study by the Transportation Research Board of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, road safety messages that use humor, wit and pop culture references may not be as effective as they are entertaining.
According to this study, humorous and witty messages often resulted in an increased percentage of people being unable to correctly interpret what they were trying to say. For those people who don’t understand the message, there could be “adverse driving consequences” if they try to interpret it, the study says. And when the message is “overly humorous,” the message can “entertain drivers without leading them to understand and accept the safety analogy presented.”
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Because of these and other issues, the study recommends that the “use of humor, wit, slang, and pop culture references in safety messages should be avoided.”
Which is admittedly a bit of a shame. We were pretty partial to “Nice car. Was there a blinker?” It’s confrontational and charming in its own odd way – just like Jersey himself.
“While we truly appreciate the expertise and oversight of FHWA in ensuring the safety of our freeways, we think it’s important to keep in mind that New Jersey-specific approaches to communicating with drivers in our state may be the best way forward.” to make a positive impact,” the letter from Booker and others said. “Unconventional and creative ways to solve our common problems are an integral part of what makes New Jersey an extraordinary place to call home.”