Despite their dour reputations, employees at the Department of Transportation and its myriad of offshoots—including Department of Motor Vehicles offices across the land—are no strangers to jokes. They’re just usually on the butt end of them.
(Notable exception: Patty and Selma Bouvier, who seemingly never had a bad day manning the Springfield DMV.)
But it seems recently that the tables have turned, and more state employees are getting the last laugh.
The past few years have been a boon for roadway humor, much of which sponsored by state DOTs, which have apparently realized that they have the perfect platform to showcase their workers’ wit in the electronic road signs that cover the country’s highways.
Across the nation, drivers have been treated to digital safety tips delivered in pithy puns or wrapped in clever cultural references, like so many spoonfuls of sugar to help the medicine go down.
And the laughs aren’t just good for the soul—they could be good for drivers, too. A 2014 study commissioned by the Federal Highway Administration found that drivers can feel more compelled to respond to government-sponsored PSAs along the road than other traditional media. (Whether or not the funny road signs add more distraction to an already preoccupied roadway is still up for debate.)
The burgeoning trend is, of course, a twist on an age-old tradition. Billboards have been around for nearly as long as roads have existed, with advertisers often expertly inserting humor into the mix to pique drivers’ interest.
But state DOT workers must compete for attentions, too, with important messages to relay about safety—a typically dry but especially pertinent topic at a time when the roadway death toll has hovered near historic levels for years.
And this new breed of roadway sign strategy was practically built for the internet age, where one good joke can get shared instantly and infinitely, living on to inspire others and starting a perpetual feedback loop of funny.
(This works on an internal level, too, with DOT employees telling The Wall Street Journal that many state agencies have created Facebook pages to cultivate and distribute ideas. Stockpiling jokes for future use is a common practice, the employees said. And while this makes it difficult to trace the actual origin of a sign, it can clearly be said that the Iowa DOT has produced more than their fair share of hilarity.)
Still, the process of getting one of these funny highway signs out into the world is not quite as easy as hitting ‘Send.’ The missives must go through an approval procedure—different at each state DOT, but nonetheless tricky to nail down. The jokes must be cheeky enough to remember, but not skew too offensive, and they all have to fit within the confines of small-ish signs and the limited number of characters they can carry.
Yet it seems many employees are up for the challenge—and getting a kick out of stretching their funny bones: undoubtedly a win for the motorists of America.
Just see for yourself. Here are some of the country’s greatest roadway hits.
Many of the most memorable digital signs out there are designed around the zeitgeist, with the DOT banking on the whims of pop culture to do the heavy lifting for them.
But be warned, the references may be as fleeting as the digital messages, so if you don’t get the joke, you may just need to refresh your memory—or your Google feed.
- “May the 4th be with you. Text I will not.”
- “Wakanda driver are you? Safety is king.”
- “Old Taylor can’t come to the phone. She’s driving.”
- “Protect your dad bod. Buckle up.”
- “Hit the road, Jack... Don’t text back no more.”
- “Who you gonna call? Nobody…You’re driving.”
- “Seatbelt sings: Don’t you forget about me.”
- “Not buckled? You’re killing me, Smalls.”
The DOT knows who their audience is.
A number of the best jokes on the road are inspired by common sayings or understandings of an area.
- “Spend money on lobstahs. Not speeding tickets.”
- “Gambling is illegal in Utah. Buckle up.”
- “Wicked tough travels.”
Massachusetts DOT, on upcoming highway hazards
- “Use yah blinkah.”
Just Plain Funny
Still, there’s something to be said about humor that transcends state and cultural lines. And the DOT has come up with plenty of that, too.
- “Get your head out of your apps.”
Iowa DOT (since adopted by many states)
- “You’re not a firework. Don’t drive lit.”
- “Camp in the mountains—not the left lane.”
- “Did you run out of blinker fluid?”
- “Have some class. Stay off my bumper.”
- “Put down the phone or we will turn off the sun.”