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No joke: Feds discourage humorous electronic messages on highways

An electronic highway sign is seen on Interstate 93 in Boston, Friday, May 9, 2014. The Massachusetts Department of Transportation posted the message "Changing Lanes? Use Yah Blinkah" on the signs around the city. "Blinkah" is how Bostonians pronounce "blinker". (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

PHOENIX (AP) — It’s no joke. A federal agency is discouraging humorous and quirky messages that could distract or confuse drivers on highways and freeways across the country.

The Federal Highway Administration recently released an updated 1,100-page manual that spells out how signs and other traffic control devices are regulated. In it, the agency strongly recommends against overhead electronic signs with obscure meanings, references to pop culture or those intended to be funny.

Rather, signs should be “simple, direct, brief, legible and clear,” when relaying important information like warning drivers of crashes overhead, adverse weather conditions and traffic delays, the agency said. Seatbelt reminders and warnings about the dangers of speeding or driving impaired are allowed.

States around the country have used quirky messaging to draw the attention of drivers. Among them: "Use Yah Blinkah” in Massachusetts; “Visiting in-laws? Slow down, get there late,” from Ohio; “Don’t drive Star Spangled Hammered,” from Pennsylvania; “Hocus pocus, drive with focus” from New Jersey; and “Hands on the wheel, not your meal” from Arizona.

Arizona has more than 300 electronic signs above its highways. For the last seven years, the Arizona Department of Transportation has held a contest to find the funniest and most creative messages.

Anyone could submit ideas, drawing more than 3,700 entries last year. The winners were “Seatbelts always pass a vibe check” and “I’m just a sign asking drivers to use turn signals.”

“The humor part of it, we kind of like,” said state Rep. David Cook, a Republican from Globe, told Phoenix TV station CBS 5. “I think in Arizona the majority of us do, if not all of us."

He said he didn't understand the fuss.

"Why are you trying to have the federal government come in and tell us what we can do in our own state? Prime example that the federal government is not focusing on what they need to be.”

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This story has been updated to correct that the Federal Highway Administration does not ban the use of humorous and quirky messages on electronic signs. It strongly recommends avoiding them.