Talking Michigan Transportation

The use of humor on highway signs and the future of DOT Twitter feeds

November 22, 2022 Michigan Department of Transportation Season 4 Episode 125
Talking Michigan Transportation
The use of humor on highway signs and the future of DOT Twitter feeds
Show Notes Transcript

On this week’s Talking Michigan Transportation, a conversation on two timely topics with long-time friend of the podcast, Lloyd Brown, of HDR.

First, a reaction to recent news that the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) advised the New Jersey Department of Transportation to discontinue the use of humorous messages on changeable message signs.

Brown has done some research on the use of humor in communications and offers insights he’s gathered.

As reported on, FHWA officials said in an e-mail, “The Federal Highway Administration is aware of the changeable message signs and has reached out to the New Jersey Department of Transportation (NJDOT).”

The story said the FHWA did not answer questions asking for more details, including why it asked NJDOT to discontinue use of the messages or how it has handled other states that use humor to get attention to safety issues.

The answer to why the signs were disallowed might be in the 31-paragraph ruling about “Uses of, and Nonstandard Syntax on Changeable Message Signs” issued on Jan. 4, 2021, by the U.S. DOT and FHWA.

In a second segment, Brown talks about what the rapid changes at Twitter and slashing of the work force by new owner Elon Musk could mean to DOTs that have used the platform as a vital and interactive tool to communicate in real time with travelers.

As reported in the New York Times, spoof messages and parody accounts have proliferated in recent days, including some that impersonate state DOTs. 

This raises questions about whether government agencies will eventually abandon the platform in search of others with some degree of content monitoring and regulation. 

Jeff Cranson: Hello, welcome again to the Talking Michigan Transportation podcast. I'm your host, Jeff Cranson. Today I'm going to be taking on a couple of topics. One you may have heard that the New Jersey DOT was instructed by the Federal Highway Administration just last week to cool it with message signs that feature humor. Those are the signs you see on the highways, dynamic message signs known as DMS. In industry parlance, so I'm going to talk to somebody who knows a little bit about humor and its use in transportation messaging. Lloyd Brown, formerly the communications director from the American Association of State Highway and Transportation officials AASHTO where I came to know him. He now works in communications for the transportation consultant. HDR and then after that, we're going to take on what the future of Twitter might mean to DOT, which have prolific Twitter feeds and other social media platforms. And it's really been an important tool for sharing information, real time information with travelers. There's a lot of back and forth, a lot of interactive communication between users and the DOT. So, we're kind of wondering what that might mean. And he's got some expertise there too, having written reports and summaries about the use of social media. So, Lloyd, thanks for taking time to be here. 

Lloyd Brown: Thanks for having me, Jeff. 

Cranson: So, let's talk first about this issue. You know you and I have talked about this for a long time between ourselves, what messages work, which ones actually, you know, cause people to alter their behavior. And just because you laugh at something when you drive by, and chuckle doesn't necessarily mean that you suddenly slow down and become more attentive to the road. It's kind of like proving a negative. You know, we know what might not work, but we can't prove for sure whether it does work or not. Lots of strong feelings about this on all sides. We're still not sure as of recording this because of the story is pretty fresh-whether this was just somebody in the New Jersey division of the Federal Highway Administration or whether this actually came out of DC. But I mean, what was your first take away upon hearing about this?

Brown: Well, you said you and I've talked about this for a lot of years, and you know it's been interesting because I'm of the mind that if we can't prove it's not working, what harm is it doing? Let's go ahead and add a little bit of humor and spice up the conversation. The counter argument is these are safety devices, and they're meant to provide critical information to the public about traffic conditions and what may be ahead of them on the road. And so, by cluttering up the message channels with what may be miscellaneous information were sort of taking away from the usefulness of those tools. And you know, like I said, Jeff, I'm, I'm of the mind that that humor actually adds value to the whole conversation and gets people talking about not just in the moment, how they're driving, but talking about the issue of Traffic Safety and being a better driver in general, 

Cranson: Well, maybe it's possible to be too funny, because it sounds like some of the concerns in New Jersey were that people were trying to, you know, stop and take photos of the signs. 

Brown: That's right. Uh, there was a tweet that they sent out that said they wanted people to stop pulling over and taking pictures of their signs, that the messages were maybe a little bit beyond what a few other states have done. I know that you know one of them, one of the real famous ones is keep your head out of your apps and you know 

Cranson: That originated in Iowa, didn’t it?

Brown: I believe Iowa was one of the first and some of this started back ohh it was about at least ten years ago. Some of the states got together and began sharing messages about May the 4th and they did a Star Trek or I'm sorry Star Wars theme and may the fourth be with you and some of those things. So, I believe that's where some of this started. But you know when you look at humor, the science of humor, it's really a tactic that improves people's memory of a particular item when you have something that's humorous, it's more sticky, it leads to the ability to recall the words and the messages. 

Cranson: Yeah, it's like creating a rhyme

Brown: That's right. And once it's sticky, then people are also more likely to share humor. It can increase. It can humanize a bureaucratic voice so that it's more relatable. And people then increase their trust with that brand or organization. And that's something that I think social media in general has led. Uh state DOTs maybe try a little bit more because we've been able to do that in our social media accounts and that I think led us into trying some of this on the changeable message signs as well. 

Cranson: Well, and I think that yeah, at its best what social media platforms have done for DOT and other government agencies is show the public that these are real people behind the wheel, that these are human beings who have the same concerns that you do, that are doing this and that's what we all try to do. People in our jobs, there's humanize our workforce. It's like you can always be mad at your local street department of the DOT. The nameless, faceless that office, right? That whatever they do, it's wrong. You know, it's slowing me down in the way. But when you find out that the people that are doing this are actually your friends and neighbors and they go to your church and coach your Little League team, that these are real people. And that's what I think social media does it. It shows that these are human beings that are communicating with you. But when it comes to the message signs, I think, you know, you've seen the study that MDOT commissioned with Michigan State University. And found people were kind of split if you if you ask in terms of popularity on using humor or using messages about fatality numbers, you know, to try to get people's attention. But like 90% overwhelming numbers. They want the signs to be used and they didn't say instead of, but they just really favor the science being used for news you can use, right? Like I need to know that there's a storm that's slowing me down ahead or that there's a bad crash, that there's construction, there's some reason I need to maybe seek a detour. You know, like we always used to say in The Newsroom, make me smarter. Right. This is what I want. But I want something that makes me smarter, makes me smarter as a driver, not necessarily even safer. Just helps me get home sooner or wherever I'm going. 

Brown: You know, Jeff, you know, when you look at the messages really from the from the perspective also of inclusion, if the humor is rooted. Or if the context of the humor is sort of lost on people, if it if it goes over their head. Like if you're making a Taylor Swift reference and most people don't, or not most people, but some people don't know who Taylor Swift is, then maybe you're sort of missing the point and you're not. That safety message isn't really landed the way you intended it, and so therefore it's not as effective. Similarly, in transportation, you know, use all these acronyms and we've got this jargon and it's anti inclusionary. So, the humor when it's used needs to be done in such a way that most people can relate to it and understand the message that is trying to convey 

Cranson: So, you know what you're touching on is another story. I think I first saw it in Axios, and I got picked up elsewhere. Finding that you know, there's a generational divide on the use of emojis, it's kind of the same thing you're talking about. 

Brown: Absolutely. I mean, I have a I have a son who's in in college and when we were. Driving in suburban Washington, DC, He was learning to drive, and he saw some of the references to on some of the clever messages on the signs there. He didn't understand what the what the point was. He didn't get the context of the joke. And so maybe that's why some of the younger people that are being pulled in this Michigan study didn't really think humor was effective is because maybe the jokes themselves weren't really pertinent to them or they didn't understand what was trying to be explained to them. 

Cranson: You mean that sometimes people think they're funny and they're not? 

Brown: That's been my experience. Certainly, my wife is has assured me that I'm not so funny either. So yeah, my wife and my kids for sure. I just continue to amuse myself, I guess. 

Brown: Yeah.

Cranson: So, go on more with what you think is going on with the Federal Highway Administration going back to, you know, the manual of Uniform Traffic Control devices and leaning on that for why there's, you know, it's like what, a 31-paragraph ruling about the uses and nonstandard syntax and changeable message signs. It sounds so bureaucratic, and it makes it easy for critics who want to say, you know, there's the federal government just being bureaucrats not having any sense of humor. I think the thing we probably need to make clear is that everybody has the best of intentions here. Everybody has safety as a priority and it's just a matter of, you know, different ideas, people who have been in this and are passionate about it and have been trying everything they can. You know DOTs, I think a lot of the people sometimes feel like we've done all these things in design and in our maintenance, in our practices. And there's only so much we can do when it comes to messaging. But we want to do everything we can because we, we take it personally, we try to build and maintain the safest system we can. We can't human proof it. People are still going to make mistakes. So, we're doing what we can to try to put the focus on behavior. And you know, nobody's got an easy answer. I mean, our cars are getting safer. We know that the manufacturers have done all kinds of things to make them safer yet, we're, you know, probably going to surpass 2020 for crash deaths in in 2022, 2021 might have been a little different as people emerged from the pandemic. But in the overall arc, we're going in the wrong direction, right? 

Brown: Yeah. And I you know; I just need to say I don't really know what's going on at FHWA and I think your point is exactly right that everybody's trying to do the right thing. I would defend, you know, anybody who says these devices should be used only for, you know, the most basic of information. What makes you smarter? Because ultimately these tools are, you know, the justification for these tools was to tell you if the bridge ahead is open or closed or if there's an incident up ahead that you know merged to the right or some of those kinds of basic instructions, but additionally, I also understand when people say, hey, we have this tool in our toolbox and people, you want to catch people with a message that makes a difference when they're actually in the act of doing something. So that's why we used to have 511 radios, highway advisory radios along the side of the road. Those have mostly been decommissioned because people don't listen to terrestrial radio as much as they used to, but the same idea was to try and catch people while they're on the road and give them information. And in this case the humor part was really pointed toward what I was saying earlier, we're trying to make the idea stickier, resonate more, and humanize the issue a bit so that people would perhaps pay attention and carry on the conversation even once they got from behind the wheel and went on to other things. 

Cranson: Well, I think it's going to be interesting to watch this over the next few days or maybe weeks. Um and find out if this is an edict that is going to, you know, have some kind of an effect on other state dot and what they're doing or if this was, you know, an isolated thing or whatever reason in New Jersey I just, I think it's too early to tell and. I know you don't know either. You would tell us. 

Brown: I would, yeah. And I don't, I don't. But whatever comes out, if there, if there if something does come out or if this is just a blip, I can guarantee that having been around transportation for well over 20 years. The conversation is going to continue, and people will continue to try their darndest to communicate with the drivers to get them to slow down, pay attention, drive more safely and just get where they're going safely at the end of the day, that's ultimately you just said it yourself that that that's ultimately. What we're trying to do get people home safely. 

Cranson: Yeah, well said. Stay with us. We'll have more on the other side of this important message. 

MDOT Infomercial: Did you know? Newton's first law of motion states that a body in motion will continue moving at the same speed and same direction, while the second law states that an object acted upon by the force will undergo wait. I thought this was a snowplow safety message, it is, which is why this is relevant. Don't you think that's complicating things just a bit? No, not at all. A snowplow weighs 17 times more than your average car, right? And still plows tend to travel at slower than posted speeds, so the third law states that action and reaction are equal and opposite. I think it's easier just to remind motorists to give plows the room they need to do their jobs follow at a safe distance and don't drive into snow clouds, things like that. Well, if you're going to make it that simple, why don't you just say don't crowd the plow. Great idea. Stay safe this winter. Don't crowd the plow. That's it. Yeah, that's it.

Cranson: Let's jump to the other topic. We were going to discuss your suggestion and a very good one is I think to talk about Twitter. You'd have to have been marooned somewhere in Antarctica not to know that Elon Musk, after some back and forth, he was going to buy Twitter and he wasn't going to buy Twitter. And in the end, he couldn't get out of the deal. And so now he's making radical moves to try to make it profitable. And that has a lot of people concerned. A lot of people angry about the lack of safeguards of, you know, things that are already going away in the name of free speech, which, you know, you can call it that. But it's arguable that you know free speech is not absolute. Let's explore what it means because you know and you have some history with that as you put it, a critical foundational communication channel for DOTs and other government agencies, but specifically focusing on dot and how we get information to people and interact with people you know with our main central feed at MDOT in Michigan and then our region feeds on top of that. You know we communicate with some 210,000 people that way and I know some states have more. We use Facebook prolifically and other platforms, but Twitter alone it's probably the most interactive like in the in the moment of all those things, right?

Brown: It really is. It's become a sort of the newspaper of the 21st century. People go to it to get the most up-to-date information in an urgent breaking news kind of moment. So, the times where we see the DOTs really rise to the occasion during weather events like what we saw in New York and up in the upper Midwest over the last few days with the big snow people turned to Twitter, they'll turn to Facebook, maybe to a lesser extent, but definitely to Twitter to see if there's any information about how the DOTs are responding or what the local emergency officials are doing to their roads or help people out in certain situations, so it's become that critical, foundational communications element. And it was really interesting I wrote some of the first reports for AASHTO back in around 2010, I think we did our first social media report on state DOT and at the time there was a handful of DOT's that had Twitter accounts and we just watched his every year more and more. dot came on board with, with, with Twitter in particular and Facebook followed a little bit slowly. A little bit slower behind it, but what they found was it was this great way. It sort of took the place of radio. You could broadcast out information, but here we are now in 2022, almost 2023 and the whole tenor and tone of the platform has changed. And so, it leads me to wonder if in a situation of you know, maybe a governor or maybe somebody in some high-level decision-making authority says OK for whatever reason, we're going to leave this platform. What does the government agency do in that sort of situation to replace the utility that Twitter now provides to reach so many people and that's what has me kind of concerned as a communications person and somebody who's concerned about the quality of public information that's out there. 

Cranson: Well, where do you think this is going? I mean, I think it's possible that that some governors in some states, if not even the Biden administration, say, you know what, we're just not going to participate in this anymore. It's become too much of a free for all too much of the Wild West, too hostile, too many fake accounts, parity accounts that you know. Look, they do little things to distinguish themselves, but look very much like they could be an official government Twitter feed. I know it's hard to predict the future, but I mean, these are all things you've been thinking about. 

Brown: I think that is a potential for sure. I think the other thing is that more and more people, individuals in the public, say I'm just not going to participate individually, so what happens in those situations if they don't cancel their account the DOT might still show 500,000 followers on Facebook, but when our Twitter excuse me, but when they send out a message, they're really only communicating with a much smaller fraction of that audience. So, in effect what we think is this bigger reach is maybe not getting that kind of reach that we think it is. So, there's that that could be happening too. People could be voting with their feet and walking away. 

Cranson: Yeah, Tom Nichols, who's, you know, writes for the Atlantic magazine and is a scholar and is on a lot of podcasts on the news a lot, commenting on current situations. And I heard him on the bulwark yesterday saying. That he thinks Twitter because of ease of use you know, he doesn't see himself jumping to master down or something else that he thinks could be clunky and you know Twitter because of its format is just so easy and so, I guess intuitive. And he said a lot of these people that say they're leaving. Just like people who said they're moving to Canada, you know, and that ultimately, they're going to stick around. But you know, who knows? I could see just what you said. You know, I could see this exodus picking up steam depending on what happens over these next few months. 

Brown: Perhaps most challenging thing for myself as a communication strategist and somebody who thinks about this and quite a bit. And is that, uh, our options for reaching the broad scale audiences have really fractured, you know, 15 years ago we had local TV over the air TV was much more dominant, there were terrestrial radio feeds. Their radio stations that we could get information out to there was actually local news stations, even in rural parts of the country that you could communicate with so much of that now has become consolidated and you know, the newspaper industries, you and I both know Jeff has changed dramatically so these opportunities for these broad scale mass communication platforms that were efficient and that government agencies could tap into for delivering information are not as available to us as they were. And so that's why Twitter is so inviting and accommodating to the government agencies putting out information. And I and I feel like some of our strategy part, the part of our brain where we really think about in our communications business, how we're doing, what we're doing has maybe atrophied a little bit. We've gotten a little too used to just putting out a tweet and not really thinking about strategically, are we catching the audiences and are we giving them the information that they need where they need it and when they need it. Yeah, I think that's a good point for all of us. We should always be thinking about that for sure. But I do think I'm really glad you brought this up because obviously I've been following this story very closely with Musk and everything that's going on, but I hadn't really thought and our social media coordinator, Jesse Ball, who's very, very good. Has updated me and said that, you know, we started to lose followers right away when the sale became final, but that they seemed to be trickling back. But you know, I just think it's going to be fascinating to watch where this goes and whether or not another platform emerges, whether it's former, you know, Twitter employees. Working with somebody else, you know something's going to be out there either because of, you know, a reset at Twitter itself or because another platform rises up and says we can do this and do it better. But it'll be fun to watch. 

Brown: It has been fun to watch. It's been fun to sort of be around. The rise of social media and the evolution of mass media in particular, so this is just another chapter, and you know the people who are, who are thoughtful and leaders in this space will at least be asking the questions whether it changes our course that's left to be decided but asking the questions and really thinking about it strategically, I think that's the key thing that I would advise people to be doing right now. 

Cranson: Yeah, I agree. And I think you know, lawmakers and policymakers are going to have a role, too. There's definitely going to be more congressional hearings as time goes on. And more of these things will be, you know, for better or worse will be litigated that way. Well, thanks, Lloyd. Two good topics. We're really glad you could make time today, and I appreciate it as always and really hope you and your family have a great Thanksgiving. 

Brown: Happy Thanksgiving to you, Jeff. 

Cranson: Hope you enjoyed this week's edition of the Talking Michigan Transportation Podcast. You can find show notes and more information at either the BuzzSprout or on Apple Podcast. I also want to thank the people who work on this podcast and make it as good as it can be. Each week, chiefly Randy Debler who does the audio editing also, Jacke Salinas, who puts the transcript together. Jesse Ball, who proofreads the show notes. And Courtney Bates, who posts the podcast on the various platforms.