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How states are distracting drivers – with warnings about distracted driving

“Your OMGs and LOLs can wait”

“Steering wheel: Not a hands free device”

“Get your head out of your apps and drive safely”

Most states have installed electronic message signs above highways to warn motorists of bad weather or traffic conditions ahead. Now some states are experimenting with the signs, using them for general safety or distracted driving messages.


The Massachusetts Department of Transportation ran a successful social media contest for new safety slogans on distracted driving, road rage, and seat belt use.

Missouri – one of the few states that hasn’t passed a law banning texting while driving – reports a positive public response to their sign campaign, with messages like “TEXTING WHILE DRIVING? OH CELL NO.”

Utah is the latest state to take distracted driving messages directly to the highways. So far, the state reports mostly positive responses from drivers … except for complaints that the messages are distracting.

Roadside Distractions

These state governments are taking a cue from private companies that have effectively used roadside billboard advertising for decades.

In the last few years, roadside ads have started to transition to electronic billboards with big, rotating advertisements. Oregon, for example, has permitted these digital billboards along state roads since 2011.

The sole purpose of these digital billboards is to get a drivers’ attention – distracting them from the road.  This must be working, as companies often pay millions of dollars for them.

So digital advertising billboards are distracting. But the state’s electronic traffic message signs? Those are actually more distracting than the ads.

Digital ads are usually large images: your brain can process pictures in just 13 milliseconds.

But traffic signs often have long messages. Processing words takes much longer than images.

Any distraction of over two seconds increases the risk of a car crash. Drivers often can’t read long messages in less than two seconds, or without slowing down. See: Neuroscience Explains the Danger of Distracted Driving

What do drivers need to know, right now?

There is no evidence that signs, catchy jingles, or ‘y’all drive safely out there’ messages do anything to change driver behavior.”

Russ Rader, spokesperson for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety

Electronic highway signs do serve a genuine purpose for the state. They are often used for Amber Alerts for missing children, traffic accidents ahead, or severe storm warnings. All of these are immediately relevant messages that may be worth the risk of distraction.

But is it worth distracting a driver with a message warning them about distracted driving – especially if there’s no evidence that they work?

We may learn from Massachusetts, Utah, and other states’ experiments. In the meantime, keep your eyes on the road.


By Thomas R Machnitzki ( (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC BY 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

By Bob Bobster from Honolulu, Hawaii (Amber Alert) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

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