Comedians or government officials? The Arizona Department of Transportation blurs the line.

Stand-Up ADOT

Written by Lauren Loftus Category: Valley News Issue: June 2017
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ADOT Safety Message Contest Winners
Out of more than 6,700 submissions, the ADOT communications team narrowed down the list to 20 finalists for public vote. More than 8,000 votes were tallied for the winning two, which went live on freeway signs on April 21, 2017.

• “Single in HOV? Get a real date,
not a court date.”

• “That’s the temperature – not the speed limit.”

There’s a prevailing idea among comedians that the key to a good joke is the element of surprise. Perhaps that’s why the highway sign shtick of the Arizona Department of Transportation has been so successful: It’s comedy in the least expected of places.

In 2015, 895 people died in crashes on Arizona roadways. It was the deadliest stretch in seven years, according to ADOT’s annual report, which indicated speeding, impaired driving and failure to wear a seat belt were factors in more than a third of collisions. Go ahead, try to make a joke now.

“You become very sensitive to it. When you see crashes every day… it hits you,” says Doug Pacey, ADOT Communications Project Manager. But leave it to a sports reporter turned governmental agency public information officer to find humor in an operations center looping traffic cam footage all day, every day. Over Thanksgiving weekend in 2015 – often the deadliest driving days in the U.S. – Pacey posted the first in what would become a long list of viral safety messages on the overhead variable message signs on state highways. “Drinking & driving go together like peas & guac.”

Referencing that summer’s infamous “Peagate,” when The New York Times sparked a Twitter firestorm by running a recipe calling for peas in guacamole, the sign went viral. Since then, ADOT has run at least 69 more messages – many tongue-in-cheek, some more serious. “People like the unexpected nature of it,” Pacey says, noting that the department doesn’t follow a strict posting schedule, instead sticking to major holidays and Arizona-specific events. Around 2016’s Country Thunder music festival, for example, signs read “Designate a driver before you fill up your red party cup.” And this past January, drivers were greeted with, “New Year, new you. Use your blinker.” Pacey says that one reached about 19 million people via social media.

Illustration by Angelina Aragon

Dad jokes? Certainly. Dated cultural references? Sure. But Pacey and the rest of the communications team are unapologetic. “I’m 37 and have two little girls – I can talk about Disney princesses all day,” Pacey says. Beyond the Frozen soundtrack, Pacey says he listens to Top 40 radio, is active on social media and scrolls through trending YouTube videos to stay current on which references will resonate with the most drivers. “If we don’t understand something, we’re going to Google it… I’ve been to the Urban Dictionary website more than anyone at ADOT.”

Kevin Biesty, ADOT’s deputy director for policy, says, “It’s really a low-cost effort [that’s] getting a lot of attention.” Biesty says he learned of using freeway signs to communicate safety messages from the Iowa DOT at a national conference. “We wanted to remain positive [in our messaging] and keep people focused,” he says.

Of course, one could argue that sardonic signs are a distraction in and of themselves. (Ever see a photo of said signs obviously taken while driving then posted to Facebook?) “We discourage photos while driving,” Biesty says, reminding text-happy drivers that ADOT provides traffic cam photos of the signs on its various social media accounts for sharing and re-tweeting purposes.
Plus, Biesty says, the signs are fulfilling their main goal of getting people engaged with driving safety. “Our plan is for people to realize driver safety is in their hands… a lot of the tragedy, a lot of the collisions are because of the person behind the wheel.” ADOT’s latest tool for engagement was a public contest launched in February in which thousands of Arizonans submitted ideas for the next clever highway sign.

KJZZ radio producer Katherine Fritcke’s “Take the wheel, not a selfie” was among the 20 finalists. “I chose my slogan based on behavior I see more often than makes me comfortable,” she says. “I see people posing for selfies while stuck in traffic on the I-10 when I drive Downtown.” Though Fritcke ultimately lost (see sidebar), she still thinks crafting safe driving messages is a worthwhile pursuit. “I think it’s a quick talking point and most of the time the messages stick… if only for a little while.” Either way, a brief chuckle during rush hour is a nice surprise.