A humorous sign by TxDOT is displayed on a Texas highway. Credit: Courtesy / TXDOT

If you pass a fellow motorist on the road and see them laughing alone in the car, perhaps they just heard something funny on the radio or were talking – hands-free, hopefully – on the phone.

These days, it’s equally possible that driver might have just spotted a digital sign with a humorous message courtesy of the Texas Department of Transportation.

This gem, for instance, appeared on signs around the state during the Christmas season: “Only Rudolph should drive lit.”

A sign on a Texas highway reads, “Only Rudolph should drive lit.” Credit: Courtesy / TXDOT

In looking for ways to emphasize safe driving and combat approximately 3,500 deaths per year on Texas roadways, the department got creative early last summer and formed a committee of approximately 15 people to conceive catchy slogans that would drive home the point of safety behind the wheel.

While the digital signs were designed to be used as a rapid-response communication tool to warn drivers of developing conditions or accidents on highways, they also have become a useful way to grab drivers’ attention and start conversations about safe driving. It’s too soon to know what effect, if any, the slogans have had on the overall number of driving fatalities.

“Gobble gobble go easy on the throttle” appeared around Thanksgiving, and more recently the department used “All you need is love … and a seatbelt” around Valentine’s Day.

“We figured you need to be clever and creative in order to capture anyone’s attention these days, because they’re constantly bombarded with so much information,” TxDOT spokesman David Glessner said. “So for us the messages are really about saving lives. We wanted to capture the attention of drivers and reinforce good driving habits.”

Texas isn’t the first state to employ the tactic. The Massachusetts Department of Transportation began posting similar messages on signs around the holidays in 2016. One noted by the Boston Globe at the time read, “Don’t drive Blitzen. Use a sober driver.”

The messages have played well on social media, with many motorists thanking the department for having a sense of humor and trying to make an impact. Glessner said people also make suggestions for catchy phrases to use, but the department hasn’t used one verbatim yet because most people aren’t aware of the limitations of TxDOT’s digital signs.

Glessner said the signs allow for no more than three lines of text with a maximum of 15 characters per line.

“We’re hoping that maybe through a little bit of humor and creativity that maybe some of these messages will stick in peoples’ heads, and if it gets a few people to stop and think about distracted driving or not driving while they’ve been drinking or something like that, then we’ve achieved our goal,” Glessner said.

The group at TxDOT who comes up with the slogans includes communications and traffic safety division personnel as well as several administrators and members of the executive leadership team. Glessner said the slogans are conceived and hashed out and voted on entirely through an committee-wide email chain.

“It’s really not that time-consuming a process, and we certainly don’t all get together and call a meeting for this,” Glessner said. “It’s sort of contribute as you can, when you can.”

TxDOT has the ability to post the messages on signs statewide, regionally, or locally. Some of the first messaging occurred around Austin for University of Texas football games, Glessner said.

Glessner said the committee usually targets major holidays or large events with some basic criteria such as don’t offend, don’t get too crazy, don’t cause controversy. The concept has earned media coverage around the nation and Glessner said that has been an added bonus for a concept directed at curtailing fatalities and injuries on Texas roads.

Glessner said research shows about 96 percent of all roadway deaths are caused by driver error. He said at least one person has died every day on Texas roads for more than 18 consecutive years.

“The whole purpose of this for us is safety,” Glessner said. “We really need to decrease the number of fatalities we see on Texas roadways each year. So this is all about changing and correcting bad driving habits and reinforcing good driving habits. It might be fun and games on the surface and maybe we’re having a little bit of fun with this, but at the end of the day our whole intent here is to bring down that number of fatalities.”

Anyone wishing to contribute an idea for the signs can tweet the idea to
@TxDOT, or submit it via email to mediarelations@txdot.gov.

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Kyle Ringo

Kyle Ringo is a freelance journalist based in San Antonio. He has covered business, college athletics, the NBA, NFL and Major League Baseball for numerous publications and websites.