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‘Worse than fruit cake’

State again uses humor to warn reckless drivers during the holiday season

You may have seen them on state roads run by NJDOT (Department of Transportation) beginning in October of last year, pithy sayings on highway signs meant to call attention to speeding, obnoxious road behavior and driving under the influence.

Among them: “Nice car. Did it come with a turn signal?” “Don’t cruise boozed.” “Slow down, this ain’t Thunder Road” (a nod to Jersey’s own Bruce Springsteen).

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But the messages disappeared last November, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer, after the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) weighed in. It decided the sayings had to come off the state’s more than 200 digital alert signs, without citing an official reason. 

Yet according to nj105.com, NJDOT spokesman Steve Shapiro told the Washington Post in February of this year that the FHWA generally frowned on sarcastic and humorous messages, citing its New Jersey division head, Robert Clark. The latter said the messages did not promote safety and were “inconsistent with both law and regulations, and increase the liability risk to the owner of the roadway facility.”

But state Transportation Commissioner Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti defended them.

“These messages are just one of many ways we’re trying to make our roads safer,” she said last year.

Now the messages are back for this holiday season, a time when the number of car accidents and fatalities is likely to increase. Distracted driving is the leading cause of fatal crashes in the state year round, according to reporting from northjersey.com. But of the approximately 40,000 fatalities nationally in traffic accidents, many occur during the Christmas and New Year holidays, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Gutierrez-Scaccetti told Fox Philadelphia that this time around, NJDOT is tempering the messages and has “dialed back the snark” to satisfy the FHWA. 

“We are being mindful of the kind of messages we put up that they’re not too edgy or considered distracting,” she noted. 

It isn’t clear if the holiday messages are having an impact on accident numbers, even though they have caught on in other states, according to the Inquirer, including Pennsylvania, Delaware and California. But are they defeating one of the messages the state is trying to drive home – not to be distracted on the road – by themselves being a distraction?

Some critics of the NJDOT signs have said yes. The department responded to initial criticism last year with a meme on its social media pages saying, “We’re glad you’re enjoying the new safety messages, but please don’t take pictures of the VMS boards while driving! It is very dangerous and defeats the message we’re trying to drive home,” according to northjersey.com.

That should be obvious, but just in case, we suggest you glance at the holiday messages while  keeping your eyes on the road. Again, the intent is to promote vehicle safety. If you need more proof, consider this: “Only Rudolph should be lit. Drive high, get DUI.”

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