Clever and Funny Road Signs Work, According to the Virginia Department of Transportation

While road signs exist primarily for pedestrian and car safety, the Virginia Department of Transportation (DOT) has proven that these signs can also be entertaining. Messages on the state’s digital signs can be changed as needed or desired by traffic officials. Additionally, these messages go way beyond “Don’t drink and drive” or “Buckle up.” 

One day, a sign may warn drivers about changing weather conditions. The next day, it can post a pop culture reference to remind drivers to slow down: “Driving fast and furious? That’s Ludacris.” These signs aren’t just an off-the-cuff idea from a few VDOT employees, though.

There’s some science behind Virginia’s funny road signs

A funny road sign altered by a prank in Hackney Wick, London
A funny road sign altered by a prank | Dave Rushen/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Both National Public Radio (NPR) and Washington DC’s Fox 5 reported on the VDOT’s humorous digital road signs. The organization put some serious research into these signs. The VDOT enlisted help from a team of researchers at Virginia Tech and 300 volunteer drivers. The volunteers were asked to look at a variety of messages while wearing a brain mapping helmet. 

These messages included, “Texting While Driving? Oh, Cell No,” “Buckle Up, Save $25 And Your Life,” and “Be On Santa’s Nice List, Drive Politely.” The volunteers’ brain activity—along with verbal confirmation—showed researchers which types of messages were memorable, understood, and had the most impact. Phrases that included wordplay, pop culture, and holiday-themed messages came out on top. Meanwhile, statements that included sports references fared poorly.

Virginia started using funny road signs in 2017. While the state may have been one of the first municipalities to use this tactic, other regions are using humor in the hopes of making roadways safer.

Catchy road signs are everywhere

Virginia isn’t the only municipality with a keen sense of humor. Canadian website Driving compiled a roundup of some of North America’s funniest digital road signs. 

During the winter, drivers in Alberta have been cautioned, “Do not let moose lick your car.” These large animals love to lick road salt off of cars. Some drivers slow down and even stop to film these encounters. Unfortunately, this behavior makes moose less wary of people and moving vehicles, leading to future accidents.

Georgia held a contest where residents could submit their road sign ideas.  Messages needed to fit into several categories, including seatbelts, impaired driving, and general safety. Two of the contest’s winners were, “Look left, look right, keep workers in sight” and “If you miss your exit, it’s okay, we made more up ahead.” 

These signs inject a little humor into rush hour. However, along with other measures like backup cameras, their primary intent is to reduce accidents and fatalities. So, do these funny road signs accomplish that goal?

How effective are Virginia’s funny road signs?

Clever road signs make for great social media posts, but they may not make the roads any safer. One danger of catchy phrases on digital road signs is that people are tempted to take photos of them. For passengers, that’s totally fine. However, for anyone at the wheel, the signs could end up contributing to distracted driving.

NPR reported that Virginia and many other states actually saw an increase in motor vehicle accidents and fatalities in 2020. Due to the pandemic, traffic was lighter than usual. However, traffic speeds increased with fewer cars on the road. In the end, funny road signs are meaningless if drivers don’t follow traffic laws.

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