Highway Signs Can No Longer Be Fun, Says Government

No more puns on electronic highway signs.
It's unclear if this sign in California breaks the new rules.
It's unclear if this sign in California breaks the new rules. / George Rose/GettyImages

In December 2019, mere weeks after the world had met—and quickly become obsessed with—The Mandalorian’s Baby Yoda, a Mississippi highway flashed an alert on one of its electronic signs:


Texas drivers saw something similar on highway signs in their state: 


They were far from the first or last pop culture references seen on roads across the country. In fact, it’s become something of a tradition for state departments of transportation to use their changeable message signs (CMS) to transmit funny, punny, and pop culture–themed alerts.

Minneapolis celebrated Taylor Swift’s arrival in town for the Eras Tour in June 2023 with a message referencing not one but two of her songs: “CUT OFF? / DON’T GET BAD BLOOD / SHAKE IT OFF.” And Boston has been poking fun at its own regional accent with “USE YAH BLINKAH” alerts since 2014. Certain states, including Arizona and Nevada, even host public contests to see who can come up with the best announcements.

One of Arizona’s 2023 winners proclaimed “I’M JUST A SIGN / ASKING A DRIVER / TO USE TURN SIGNALS,” a nod to the 1999 movie Notting Hill. (“Using turn signals before you turn makes you a total star,” Gina Finkelstein, a software engineer who came up with message, said, “just like Julia Roberts in Notting Hill, only bigger and better!”) Nevada, meanwhile, crowned three winners, including “THAT‘S THE TEMPERATURE / NOT THE SPEED LIMIT” and ”CAMP IN THE MOUNTAINS / NOT THE LEFT LANE.”

But the U.S. Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) is shutting the party down. As the Associated Press reports, the FHWA recently published the 11th edition of its manual, a nearly 1200-page tome that, among other things, details new regulations for states’ CMS.

“Messages with obscure or secondary meanings, such as those with popular culture references, unconventional sign legend syntax, or that are intended to be humorous, should not be used as they might be misunderstood or understood only by a limited segment of road users and require greater time to process and understand,” the manual states [PDF].

Instead, they should “emphasize the applicable regulation or warning and should reference any penalties associated with violations of the regulation.” The manual even gives a couple examples: “UNBUCKLED SEAT BELTS FINE + POINTS” and “IMPAIRED DRIVERS LOSE LICENSE + JAIL.”

The new rules aren’t a total surprise; the FHWA has taken issue with unserious CMS messages for at least a few years now. The debate is pretty simple: Proponents of fun and funny alerts think they’re a great way to get drivers to actually pay attention to the signs; opponents argue that they’re too distracting and not always clear enough in their meaning—especially for people who don’t get the joke or reference.

If there’s a silver lining to the situation, it’s that states at least have ample time to broadcast a few last cheeky messages: They have until January 18, 2026, to enact the new rules.