The digital alerts that debuted on Garden State highway signs last month may have shown a little too much Jersey attitude.
From Wednesday afternoon, messages such as “Get your head out of your apps” and “mashed potatoes – not your head” are no longer visible on the New Jersey Department of Transportation’s network of 215 permanent digital warning signs across the state. Similar notices have been used in other states, including Utah, Pennsylvania, Delaware, California and Tennessee.
“FHWA [Federal Highway Administration] has instructed us to stop posting these creative safety messages,” said Stephen Schapiro, NJDOT’s director of communications, in an email Wednesday afternoon.
In a statement, the FHWA said it is “aware of the changing message signs and has contacted NJDOT.” FHWA officials did not comment on why New Jersey was asked to stop using the notices.
In an interview Tuesday, NJDOT Commissioner Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti described the signs as an effort to “get the attention of people on the road with messages that are quintessentially New Jersey — kind of in-your-face.”
“We meet drivers where they are, and these messages have caught on in a big way.”
“We’ll be slow – don’t drive high,” read one sign.
“Hold on to your butt – help prevent bushfires,” said another.
“Calm down. This isn’t Thunder Road,” read a sign for fans of New Jersey son Bruce Springsteen’s hit tune.
Delaware, which Gutierrez-Scaccetti credits as its inspiration, began distributing similar high-profile safety warnings in 2017, and Pennsylvania also uses what PennDot calls “non-traditional, creative messages.” The FHWA did not respond to questions about whether other states would be asked to change their roadside notices.
In New Jersey, the sharper alerts led some drivers to conclude that the system had been hacked.
And on its Twitter account, NJDOT posted a Photoshopped photo of a driving cat, along with a friendly warning: “We’re glad you like our new safety messages, but please don’t take pictures of [signs] while driving! It is very dangerous and defeats the message we are trying to drive home.”
Gutierrez-Scaccetti said the safety messages, as well as efforts to use humor to connect with drivers, were serious.
“The two biggest messages we want to get across are to slow down and obey the state’s Move Over Law,” she said. “These messages are just one of many ways we are trying to make our roads safer.”
According to New Jersey State Police, the statewide vehicle crash death toll this year, as of Wednesday, was 618 — 11 more than the 607 reported in all of 2021. The 2020 death toll was 516.
“Aggressive driving is a big problem,” said Mary Beth Caracci, whose family has owned the South Jersey Driving School in Moorestown for nearly 40 years.
“Personally, I’m not a fan of sarcasm,” she said. “But any sign that reminds us to think about being better drivers is OK with me.”