States must stop using playful safety messages like "seatbelts always pass the vibe check" by 2026.
The agency says humor can be confusing or "adversely affect respect for the sign."
Some highway signs crack jokes, use puns, or riff off Taylor Swift lyrics to remind drivers to be safe.
Enjoy them while you can.
The US Federal Highway Administration has ordered all 50 states to stop putting messages on electronic signs that "are intended to be humorous," reference pop culture, or could overall "adversely affect respect for the sign."
Instead, safety messages on changeable signs should be "simple, direct, brief, legible, and clear," the agency said in a 1,100-page manual published in December.
The new standards go into effect on January 18, but states have two years to adopt them.
State highway officials and sign-writers argue that the jokes grab attention, but federal regulators have said they are risky in two ways: they're distracting, and not everybody can understand them.
States including New Jersey, Ohio, and Massachusetts have leaned into crafting quirky, funny, or holiday-themed messages.
The Arizona Department of Transportation even holds an annual competition for new traffic safety messages. In 2023, residents submitted over 3,700 ideas. The winners were "I'm just a sign asking a driver to use turn signals" and "Seatbelts always pass the vibe check."
"I hope the message makes people chuckle and happy that they are wearing a seatbelt: you pass the vibe check!" Elise Riker, an Arizona resident who submitted one of the winning ideas, said in a press release.
Not all playful safety messages have been so beloved.
The Wall Street Journal reported that one controversial message — "Get your head out of your apps" — had to be retracted from signs in Colorado after some residents complained.
"You don't want to be widely provocative," Sam Cole, who manages safety communications for Colorado's Department of Transportation, told the Journal. "You want to be memorable and you want to generate conversation at the family dinner table."
The new federal manual offers a few examples of language that would be acceptable for highway safety messaging under its standards, such as "No hand-held phone by driver" or "State law fasten seat belts."
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