An edgy, hip traffic sign? Some suburban drivers thought they were hallucinating, but the digital message proclaiming "No speeding, No texting, No ketchup" that appeared on local highways in early July was bona fide. And there's more to come, state officials promise.
Instead of the same-old, same-old digital signs, "we're trying a new approach," IDOT Secretary Randy Blankenhorn said Thursday. "What we were doing was getting stale -- it wasn't attracting attention."
What IDOT wants people to notice is the growing number of traffic crashes and fatalities, an issue Blankenhorn calls an epidemic. In 2015, there were 914 fatal crashes in Illinois. That tally shot up to 1,000 in 2016 and reached 998 in 2017.
As of Friday, there had been 522 fatal crashes in 2018. With "deaths on our highways -- almost all are preventable by people paying attention, not texting, not drinking," Blankenhorn said.
The change-up started this spring across the city and suburbs on I-290, I-55 and the Kennedy, Dan Ryan and Edens expressways. Provocative ads, like the ketchup one referring to the local tradition of eschewing ketchup on hot dogs, were crafted by IDOT employees and include one-liners such as:
• "Cars have bumpers. Bikers have bones. Share the Road.
• "Han says Solo down. Obey speed limits," reflecting the release of "Solo: A Star Wars Story."
• "That text can wait. Love, Mom. 3 minutes to I-355."
The ads are one of several strategies to reduce crashes that IDOT's undertaking this year; another is a safety summit planned for this fall.
The Illinois tollway has a similar effort and hosted a contest in 2015 for the public to submit punchy messages.
"We typically post short, simple safety messages that remind drivers to slow down or be alert for workers but are brief enough to avoid distracting them from roadway and traffic conditions," spokesman Dan Rozek said.
The ads get more interesting between 8 p.m. and 5 a.m. Examples include:
• "Get your head out of your apps. Put the phone down."
• "A good role model does not drive distracted."
The key is to deliver a message drivers can safely read in a short period of time, both agencies said.
How much time does the average driver have to absorb a digital slogan while traveling at 60 mph?
About eight seconds, said Jeff Lindley, chief technical officer for the Institute of Traffic Engineers.
The trend of edgy digital messages started within the last five years, Lindley said. Transportation experts noticed drivers paid attention to signs with critical information, such as lane shifts and crashes, but noncritical messages about buckling seat belts, for example, got lost in the landscape.
"There's been an increasing number of states deciding to get more creative with their messages," said Lindley, a traffic engineer. "That's fine as long as you don't go over the top," he added, noting the Illinois examples were appropriate.
"If you wind up with a message that has 15 words in it, that takes a long time to read or makes a driver go, 'What was the point of that?', you run the risk of being distracting and that's counterproductive to what you're trying to accomplish."
Got an idea for a good digital message? Drop an email to email@example.com, and we'll publish the top 10.
You should know
Got an opinion on the proposed extension of Route 53 north into Lake County by the Illinois tollway? Of course you do. There's a chance to comment now through Aug. 24 on an environmental-impact statement being prepared for the project. Comments can be posted on the Tri-County Access Project website or mailed to: Pete Foernssler, Illinois tollway, 2700 Ogden Ave., Downers Grove, IL 60515.
Expect irritation on the Edens Spur through mid-August between Pfingsten Road and the Edens Expressway as traffic narrows to one lane in both directions. The Illinois tollway is rebuilding the toll road and replacing nine mainline bridges. More traffic shifts are expected as work on the mainline will last through 2019.
Students of safety
Metra recently recognized budding writers and artists who participated in its annual safety poster and essay contest.
More than 2,200 students between kindergarten and grade 12 participated in the contest, which had the theme "Eyes Up, Devices Down: Look, Listen, Live." The top participating school was Robert Crown Elementary School in Wauconda.
Local first-place winners for the essay portion included fourth-grader Rimaysa Siddiqui of Streamwood and fifth-grader Jad Farhat of Itasca.
Local first-place recipients for the poster included second-grader Gia Choudhary of Naperville, third-grader Kate Levenshteyn of Buffalo Grove, fifth-grader Javier E. Aranda of Streamwood, eighth-grader Whitney Madler of Mount Prospect, ninth-grader Charles Choi of Arlington Heights, 10th-grader Hannah Bae of Lincolnshire and 12th-grader Ivo Komornicki of Naperville.