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Republican lawmakers want Arizona's digital highway signs to stay in their lane

The way Rep. Neal Carter (R-San Tan Valley) sees it, those electronic signs along freeways and major Arizona roads should be spreading safety messages to motorists, not telling them how to run their lives.

And especially not to get vaccinated.

So now state lawmakers are taking steps to ensure that doesn’t happen again.

On a 7-4 vote Friday the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure approved a measure which limits the messages to those “directly related top transportation or highway public safety.” Anything else, the San Tan Valley Republican said, should be off limits.

“They are a little bit distracting,” he said.

“They do put on things sometimes that are not related to transportation,” he said. “That would be inappropriate.”

But Carter conceded there’s something else behind his measure.

“What we’re worried about is the government is the government effectively using as a kind of advertisement for other things,” he told colleagues. And Carter said such decisions should not be made by bureaucrats in the Arizona Department of Transportation who decide what is “worthy” of being posted.

“We think there’s a little bit of a slippery slope,” he said.

But Carter already has seen the state sliding down that slope.

Two years ago, signs above state roads spelled out the message, “Want to return to normal? Get vaccinated.”

That got the immediate attention of then-Sen. Kelly Townsend (R-Apache Junction).

“Seen in Communist China today,” she wrote in a Twitter post with a photo of the sign. “Oops, I mean Arizona.”

The message disappeared days later.

But C.J. Karamargin, the press aide for then-Gov. Doug Ducey, insisted it wasn’t because of any specific complaint, saying messages routinely rotate. Anyway, he said, the Ducey administration backed the message.

ADOT maintains to this day it did nothing wrong, saying that the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, which is the standard for all devices and signs on roads open to public travel, specifically allowed the vaccine message because the president had declared a national emergency. And that, the agency said, permitted state and local transportation agencies to display optional “homeland security messages” such as this one.

Carter, however, said it’s not related to transportation. And his legislation, if it becomes state law, would preclude that from ever happening again in Arizona.

But it’s broader than that.

Also gone would be signs advising motorists of “no burn” days during periods of high pollution. So, too, would messages ADOT posts for state and national parks as well as the U.S. Forest Service related to wildfires.

And there would no longer be signs, usually displayed on the day a police officer or firefighter who had died in the line of duty was buried, with a message like “rest in peace” with the officer’s name.

“I’m sure he’s an upstanding guy,” Carter said of seeing one of those signs.

“And I love firemen,” he continued. “But this is the beginning of a sign, now, that’s going to start to say everything from ‘someone died’ to ‘thanks to so-and-so’ to ‘voting.’”

That last one already has happened.

Rep. Teresa Martinez (R-Casa Grande) said ADOT has allowed signs in the past reminding people about Election Day. Carter said that should not have happened.

“It’s not transportation related,” he said.

The legislation does contain exceptions.

HB 2586 would still allow the “silver alert” messages about missing seniors and the “blue alerts” where police are seeking the public’s help in finding someone who has assaulted or killed a law enforcement officer.

And Carter said nothing in his legislation would kill the ability of ADOT to display their safety messages in a humorous way.

So there will keep being communications like “Drive hammered, get nailed,” “Focused driving is the way of the Jedi,” or “Drive like the person your dog thinks you are.”

That pleased Rep. David Cook (R-Globe).

“I kind of like the funny stuff,” he said. “You’re tied up in traffic and you’re not going anywhere.”

The measure now needs approval of the full House.