Humor on the highway: NJDOT wants to catch drivers’ attention

The transportation agency is posting safety reminders via its electronic signs, but the future of the campaign is up in the air.

NJ DOT humorous vehicle safety signs

Many of the driver safety messages produced by the New Jersey Department of Transportation are humorous. (Sal Cowan, NJ Dept. of Transportation)

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Drivers in the Garden State are getting some not-so-subtle safety reminders this summer.

The New Jersey Department of Transportation is displaying several different messages on electronic highway signs, urging drivers to not to speed, take drugs or be rude to other drivers.

Sal Cowan, the DOT’s senior director of transportation mobility, said the messages are short, but to the point.

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“We want to reinforce good behaviors and remind people that when you drive, you need to slow down, you need to drive safely, you need to pay attention,” he said.

Almost two dozen different reminders are being displayed on a rotating basis, on more than 200 electronic message signs all over the state. One says “let the waves do the crashing, stay alert.” Another one tells drivers “there’s no debate, don’t tailgate,” a different sign reads “get your head out of the sand, don’t drink and drive,” and motorists are also reminded that “there’s no summer vacation in jail, don’t drive high.”

“We want to make sure that any time anyone sees one of these messages, that they remember it has a safety message behind it, even if it does have a little bit of humor attached,” said Cowan.

Many New Jerseyans report noticing the safety messages on state and interstate highways, but the U.S. Federal Highway Administration has decided to ban all highway messages that contain humor, starting in 2026.

The agency said attempts at humor can be distracting, and lead to confusion or “adversely affect respect for the sign.”

Tracy Noble, government and public affairs manager for Triple-A Club Alliance said there is no scientific study or data that proves the safety reminder signs are effective, but they do know the messages get drivers talking on social media and on radio call-in shows.

Whether or not they’re changing behavior, I think that’s yet to be seen,” she said. “But the fact that people are talking about safety messaging is certainly a good thing.”

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She said her organization has not taken a formal position about the Federal Highway Administration’s ban, but “the fact of the matter is we are seeing an increase in fatalities on our roadways, so if we can get people to look at these messages and talk about them and hopefully change their behavior, then it’s a good thing.”

Cowan pointed out the focus of the campaign is to offer drivers a simple safety reminder that makes an impression.

“Sunblock, check, sunglasses, check, seatbelt, check. It’s something you need to do every time you get in the car,” he said. “It’s about people’s behavior and changing behaviors that might not fit within our safety goals.”

As far as who thinks up the messages, he said “there are a number of people here at the Department that provide input to creating these messages, we also work with the Division of Highway Traffic Safety and their office.”

Cowan stressed “while they do have an element of humor in them, they’re meant to get attention, they have a specific safety message to avoid a behavior that could be dangerous.

Noble believes that makes sense.

“I don’t know if banning messages that resonate with people is the right call to make,” she said.  “That all remains to be seen.”

The Federal Highway Administration rules will affect several states besides New Jersey, including Arizona, Colorado, Massachusetts and Ohio.

A spokesperson for the Department said the DOT will comply with federal rules once they are required.

“We are trying to follow the same guidance that so many other states are following, and we will continue to follow the Federal Highway Administration guidance,” he said. “We are being mindful of the kinds of messages we put up, keeping them safety centered.”

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