Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
A road sign on southbound I-15 at 3900 South on Monday, Aug. 7, 2017. When Zero Fatalities and UDOT staffers team up to create weekly highway overhead messages, the meetings are fun, but they're dead-serious about the safety message.

SALT LAKE CITY — On the Fourth of July, drivers on Utah's freeways were treated to the reminder, "You're not a firework; don't drive lit." On Pioneer Day, they were told, "If yer eyes are saggin', pull over yer wagon."

The warnings on the overhead variable message signs (VMS) are designed to be eye-catching as drivers cruise down Utah freeways. "Message Mondays" usually feature clever word play or something themed to a holiday, while Friday posts feature statistics, usually pretty grim: For instance, in July, only seven days passed without a death on one of Utah's highways. Believe it or not, that reflected a positive trend compared to July in previous years. Those statistics will appear in an overhead message on a Friday in August.

The counsel on the signs — witty, jarring or wise — is the work of a dedicated and comedic group of about 10 staffers from the Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT) and the Zero Fatalities driver safety campaign. They gather monthly for 90 minutes in the boardroom at UDOT to decide on messages they think will pry good roadway behavior out of drivers. They also poke gentle fun at each other — easy, since some of them have been doing this together since the signs first went up about three years ago.

At their most recent meeting on July 31, the group is gathered around four tables arranged into a square facing a pair of screens that show how their suggestions would look on a sign. Despite their levity, they are dead serious about the messages, and the discussion about wording gets detailed.

Jason Davis, UDOT director of operations and the only engineer in the group, doesn't like the use of "hold on" in one suggested message because it calls to mind the dangerous practice of holding a baby in your lap instead of using a car seat.

Talking over wording reminds everyone that lives are at stake when drivers err. For instance, drowsy driving was a factor in 15 deaths last year.

"People are so flippant about drowsy driving," Allyse Christensen of Zero Fatalities says.

Besides drowsy driving, the group emphasizes distracted driving, aggressive driving, impaired driving and not buckling up.

Around the table are people with jobs specifically related to signs, in addition to those helping craft the message. Zero Fatalities program manager Kristen Hoschouer keeps the calendar, pointing out that late August and early September will bring a new school year, a solar eclipse, then Labor Day. It's nice when a special occasion and a VMS message match up.

Lisa Miller, UDOT traveler information manager, is part of the team that will physically type the signs' words into the computer that programs them to run from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. on their designated day. Christensen keeps track of slogan submissions from the public.

Ask about a specific message — like this St. Patrick's Day gem: "Drunk driving can cost you a pot of gold," — and chances are group members don't remember who first suggested it, says Joe Walker, UDOT director of communication. Someone throws out an idea and they pile on like kids in autumn leaves, refining or changing the direction. If one of them objects to a message, they veer good-naturedly down another path.

Some, though, do get claimed. Zach Whitney, UDOT digital communications specialist, says he came up with "Did you run out of blinker fluid?" And the "saggin' wagon" line was a suggestion from the public.

Why it matters

In a perfect world, no one would need these messages. Everyone with a driver's license has been taught the rules. And yet, some people still pull over on the freeway to watch fireworks, instead of taking an exit and finding a safe place to park. They get a flat and stop in a travel lane. They totally ignore the fact the left lane is for passing — and once you've passed, you're supposed to leave that lane.

A road sign on southbound I-15 at 3900 South on Monday, Aug. 7, 2017. When Zero Fatalities and UDOT staffers team up to create weekly highway overhead messages, the meetings are fun, but they're dead-serious about the safety message. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

The folks around this table fear that on Aug. 21, when a partial solar eclipse will be visible in Utah, people will stop in place to watch it, putting everyone on the freeway at risk.

Mike Brian, Penna Powers COO, jokes that "Just don't" might not be a bad message to put up that day.

Still, the group's pretty sure that the time they put into the messages will be time well spent. When people see reminders, they do respond.

When the messages were first put up on the overhead signs, it was easier to see the impact in the form of changed behavior, Brian says. Folks who just needed a little nudge, a humorous reminder to wear their seat belts or use their blinkers or be courteous, reacted immediately and positively. "Now we're fighting the resistant-to-change people," he says.

Davis remarks that traffic fatalities in Utah are slightly down compared to the same time last year, and wonders aloud if this is a national trend or unique to Utah. The answer won't be known until the middle of next year, when 2017 fatality data is finalized.

It helps to remind people over and over to follow the rules when they drive, Davis says. Messages on billboards, VMS, TV spots and even national discussions of distracted driving, "which we see more than we like," all have an impact. He hopes that as a result, using cellphones while driving is becoming socially unacceptable.

It's a point of pride that in their nearly three years, UDOT has never used the same message twice. The group's handiwork has made the front page of Reddit, which Christensen calls "great." Her colleague Becka Kanell says a few overhead messages have gone viral on social media.

Probably not …

A bunch of factors determine if a message will work, both literally and figuratively.

Miller types a message up on the screen so everyone can see how it looks. It can't have more than 48 letters, 16 tops on each of three lines. Sometimes seeing the words is different than hearing them. And there are sensitivities, too. Is "killed" too direct? Will they get blasted by crabby commuters for certain plays on words?

Not long ago, they posted "Get your head out of your apps" and heard about it from upset callers. Engineers — who don't come up with the messages — got flamed in the complaints, something the group tries to bear in mind. On the plus side, that message was definitely noticed and discussed, which is not a bad thing for getting a point across.

Other potential messages are deemed too salty and permanently shelved.

At one point, the group is laughing so hard that the UDOT director, Carlos Braceras, pokes his head in. They recruit him to see if he understands the cultural reference in "#YOLO. Buckle up." Braceras doesn't get YOLO (you only live once), but that's OK, they decide, since it's still a top-30 hashtag, and most messages don't work for everyone. They aim different messages at different demographics quite often.

Walker thinks up to half of drivers might not get that one, but the other half most definitely will. In a perfect world, it will spark a discussion and people in cars will explain it to each other.

As the group ponders the phrase, it cracks up John Gleason, UDOT spokesman, who facetiously suggests, "That belt looks nifty on you!" That rolls effortlessly into "Nifty belt, kiddo, I like the cut of your jib." It won't make a billboard, but it makes the group laugh. Ditto a "Don't call me Shirley" reference from the movie "Airplane." On an overhead sign, it's just too hard to capture the context.

They debate seriously whether a back-to-school message should be on the freeway. What one group member likes doesn't always resonate with another. For example, Davis suggests, "Drive like your kids live here." Hoschouer thinks it's a great sentiment, but doesn't make sense on a freeway.

Accuracy matters, so when someone suggests a historical reference to seat belts, people start googling when seat belts were invented. (FYI, the advent of cars preceded seat belts by nearly half a century.)

Some of the messages just offer good advice: "In a wreck? Stay safe. Remain in car." Or "Bad weather. Lights on. Cruise control off." Or "Don't do dumb things with your smart phone. One text or call can wreck it all."

The public is invited to propose sayings for the signs, and they do, with some individuals putting in many at one time. The very best ones are discussed by the group and sometimes adopted. Ideas can be submitted here.