Eyes on the road: U.S. agency bans humor from highway signs so drivers keep focus on safety

An electronic freeway sign says "Stay safe, get your booster, visit My Turn."
A Caltrans sign on the 101 in the San Francisco Bay Area does not crack wise.
(Wendy Lee / Los Angeles Times)

Cue sad trombone.

Electronic safety messages like “Buckle up, windshields hurt” or “We’ll be blunt, don’t drive high” will soon disappear from freeways and highways.

The U.S. Federal Highway Administration has chosen 2026 as the year the laughter dies — for good reason, the agency says.


Overhead signs with “obscure meaning, references to popular culture, [and] that are intended to be humorous” will be banned because they could be misunderstood or are distracting to drivers, administration officials maintain.

States have two years to implement the changes included in the agency’s recently released 1,100-page manual detailing new rules regarding signs and other traffic control device regulations.

The agency, a part of the U.S. Department of Transportation, stated that signs should communicate “simple, direct, brief, legible, and clear” messages.

Backers who want to build a green city from scratch began with secretive land purchases in Solano County. Now they seek to sell county voters on the project.

Jan. 17, 2024

Officials said electronic signs should display only important information, such as warning drivers about crashes ahead, inclement weather conditions and traffic delays. Messages reminding drivers to wear seatbelts, avoid speeding and driving impaired will also be allowed.

Administration guidelines specify that states can showcase only messages on the signs that are approved as part of traffic safety campaigns. Examples from past campaigns include the informative but decidedly less catchy “Unbuckled seat belts fine + points” and “Impaired drivers lose license + jail.”

In California, the Department of Transportation has used messaging in the past that was intended to tickle as well as teach.


Those phrases, part of messaging campaigns approved by the national DOT, used phrases such as “Tailgating is for football, not highways” to remind motorists to be safe.

The state agency, however, will play it straight from now on.

“Caltrans primarily uses [changeable-message signs] for traffic management — for example, when a lane is closed, or a detour needed,” Nicole Mowers, Caltrans public information officer, told the Times.

Mowers said the agency abides by all federal regulations regarding such signs and “believes all of its messaging follows federal guidelines.”