Sign Language

Sometimes, highway safety is a laughing matter.

Sign Language
Freeway farceurs: from left to right, Colby Fortier-Brown, Luke Lorrimer, Joyce Taylor, Adam Grotton, Meg Lane, Melissa Zelenkewich, Stephen Landry, and Michael Cole, of MaineDOT’s Office of Creative Services.
By Jaed Coffin
Photographs by Gabe Souza

Standing outside the Maine Department of Transportation’s Augusta headquarters recently, chief engineer Joyce Taylor reflected on the few years since she and her staff started getting clever with highway safety messages. “At first, there was quite a divide among traffic engineers,” Taylor said. “A lot of people think highway signs should just be about serious things.” But after some friends and colleagues began sending her road-sign witticisms from other states, Taylor “pulled rank” and said, “We’re doing this.”

That first Christmas: SANTA SEES YOU WHEN YOU’RE SPEEDING. For the Patriots’ 2018 Super Bowl Run: 87 IS GRONK’S NUMBER, NOT THE SPEED LIMIT and DRIVING TOO FAST? BELICHICK YOURSELF. That spring, a statewide contest drew more than 2,000 submissions. One winner: A COLD SUPPAH IS BETTAH THAN A HOT TICKET.

A typical sign runs a max of eight characters per line, three lines per screen. “You don’t want people to think too hard,” Taylor said. “It can’t get too deep. I don’t want people hitting the brakes.” She jokes that the point of the signs is “to distract the distracted driver.” They pretty clearly accomplish that — the question she always gets now is, “Who are the people who come up with this stuff?”

Highway drollery: One of this year’s Fourth of July roadside PSAs.

Later that afternoon, Meg Lane, director of MaineDOT’s Office of Creative Services, met with her team in a small cluster of cubicles. Most of the time, her staffers are busy informing the public about road projects — “You know, ‘Left Lane Closed,’” she explained. But with a little downtime, they’ll lob ideas around, playing with double meanings or Maine-isms. “Lots of googling, lots of rhyming dictionaries,” said Mike Cole, the office’s digital and video coordinator.

Hanging outside his cubicle is the “wall of shame”: a graveyard of failed messages. There lie the many broken dreams of MaineDOT photographer and videographer Adam Grotton, who loves ’90s rap: MO TEXTING / MO PROBLEMS (Biggie); NOBODY IN DA CLUB DRIVE TIPSY (J-Kwon); DRUNK DRIVING? STOP! DROP! SHUT IT DOWN CALL YOUR POPS! (DMX). Lane, the most senior member of the otherwise millennial and Gen X team, didn’t think drivers would get the gist.

After the Bruins lost in the Stanley Cup Finals this year, a number of promising ideas went out the window, graphic designer Melissa Zelenkewich said. For instance: CELEBRATE THE CUP, BUT NOT BEHIND THE WHEEL. An office favorite was NO SEAT BELT? WHAT THE PUCK! It also didn’t make the cut. “You have to think, what if one of the pixels goes out?” Cole said. “I mean, we can’t have that.”

Pictures of the roadside one-liners have gotten hundreds of thousands of views on social media, and MaineDOT’s writers have acquired a degree of celebrity. When Cole and his wife go out, she likes to introduce him as “the guy who comes up with the signs.” Grotton is used to random people pitching him their best material. “So many ideas!” he said. “But they’re typically really bad. They’re too long, like a paragraph, or they have a swear that’s like HEY [INSERT EXPLETIVE], STOP DRIVING BADLY! I mean, that’s just not funny at all.”

This summer, MaineDOT has some classics to fall back on: YOU’RE NOT A FIREWORK, DON’T DRIVE LIT or NOBODY RELISHES A PICKLED DRIVER. But the Office of Creative Services will keep striving for novelty. Lane’s responsibility, she says, is to make sure the novelty actually connects with MaineDOT’s mission.

“Sometimes,” she said, I have to tell them, ‘Okay, it’s funny, it’s hysterical, but where’s the safety?’”