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Virginia’s dad jokes are a sign of the times, but will you get the message?

“Fans don’t let fans drive blitzed.” “Driving Fast and Furious? That’s Ludacris.” These and other messages have made their way onto Virginia’s custom highway messaging signs and shared far and wide on social media. They attract attention, but do they actually improve safety? Virginia’s Department of Transportation (VDOT) decided to find out for themselves. 

Like any good government body, VDOT commissioned a study with a little help from Virginia Tech. The team came up with 1,200 different messages spread across various themes (seasonal/holiday, pop culture, puns, rhymes, etc.) and wrangled 300 Virginia residents to be strapped into a Functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) headset in order to measure how closely they paid attention to each. The result? Well, as it turns out, being clever pays off, but some approaches work better than others. 

“Messaging is focused on driver behaviors and crash types identified in the five-year Strategic Highway Safety Plan and trending crash factors identified in the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles Traffic Records Electronic Data System,” VDOT said. Study participants responded most strongly to messages that revolved around the themes of distracted driving and driving under the influence – two crucial target areas for VDOT – and worked best when tailored to a holiday. Sports and pop culture references can be more hit-and-miss, VDOT says, and good-old fashioned puns are very dependable. 

In short, drivers notice these messages, and they’ve earned VDOT widespread attention for their efforts to get the word out, and they’ve raised the profile of the department’s social media team, which has grown its following significantly in recent years. But as to shaping driver behavior? Well, that’s another question for another study – and, thanks to COVID, another time. Last year’s nationwide spike in road fatalities has skewed an otherwise falling trend upward, making it more difficult to determine how well the department’s messaging is working. 

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