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The U.S. government doesn't want ADOT's freeway signs to be funny anymore

Lanes are full, horns are honking, and nobody seems to use their turn signal. But freeway traffic isn’t all bad when you look up and spot an overhead board that makes you smile with messages like: “Not a bee? Don’t drive buzzed.”

Last year, more than 3,700 people participated in the state Department of Transportation’s  Safety Message Contest, which asks Arizonans to submit their best witty and creative traffic safety message to display on overhead freeway message boards.

The Federal Highway Administration is throwing cold water on states that use humor and pop culture references to impart public safety reminders on overhead freeway signs.  The agency recently updated its  manual outlining standards for things like road markings, signals and signs.

In Section 2L.07 of the manual, the guidelines say signs "should not be used to display a traffic safety campaign message if doing so could adversely affect respect for the sign. Messages with obscure or secondary meanings, such as those with popular culture references, unconventional sign legend syntax, or that are intended to be humorous, should not be used as they might be misunderstood or understood only by a limited segment of road users and require greater time to process and understand."

States have two years to implement all of the manual’s new changes. After that, “Don’t hurry, be happy,” “Merge it like it’s hot” and similar blurbs will no longer appear on freeway message boards.

Republican state lawmaker Neal Carter introduced a bill last session to limit messaging on highway signage. But in a hearing, he noted: “It is not the intent to change that kind of messaging or to specify how they make the messaging, whether it’s humorous or not.”

Gov. Katie Hobbs ultimately  vetoed that bill.

As far as ADOT’s response to the change, a spokesperson said the agency is “in the process of reviewing” the new manual, but declined to comment further.

Kirsten Dorman is a field correspondent at KJZZ. Born and raised in New Jersey, Dorman fell in love with audio storytelling as a freshman at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication in 2019.