In Our View: Helping Inform Motorists

Highway message boards could include locally oriented updates

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Local officials presented a good case for expanded and more efficient use of highway message boards. State officials listened and responded by authorizing a pilot program that could become a model for the rest of the state.Congratulations to both groups β€” the local contingent that included legislators and law enforcement leaders, and the state Department of Transportation β€” for governing collaboratively. Sharing ideas and formulating innovative solutions is what taxpayers expect of public figures. If only Congress could become similarly motivated away from partisan interests and toward shared gains.

This success story began Dec. 12 when six lawmakers sent a letter to state Secretary of Transportation Paula Hammond requesting expanded use of highway message boards ("Variable Message Signs" in state officialese), to include messages of local importance. Supportive signatures on the letter came from six local law enforcement authorities, including Clark County Sheriff Garry Lucas.

Hammond responded relatively quickly and encouragingly, granting the request. "While we haven't done this from a regionalized perspective," she wrote, "we would be interested in working with you to pilot a possible expanded use of VMS similar to our involvement on statewide efforts, supporting your area's specific traffic safety priorities and efforts." The winner? The motoring public.

Individuals worthy of praise? Those already mentioned, but also Clark County Sheriff's Sgt. Shane Gardner and Max Ault, former legislative assistant to then-state Rep. Tim Probst. Gardner and Ault worked on the letter of request. The state currently uses message boards to alert drivers about bridge lifts, construction, accidents and Amber Alerts. Discussions about the pilot program will examine use of the signs for more localized messages, road conditions, safe driving tips and crime trends.

Gardner, Ault and others have acknowledged WSDOT as sole authority on the state signs. But they also knew the signs stand blank much of the time. And Hammond has agreed with them that wider use would give taxpayers more bang for their buck.

As we mentioned in an editorial last month, two fairly vague but significant problems could come into play. Under-use of the signs (or using them for not-so-crucial messages) could lead motorists to take them for granted and not look at them. Then again, over-using signs might distract some drivers. Deciding how those effects might transpire will be one purpose of meetings between state and local officials as they explore the pilot program.

WSDOT will soon activate a Blue Alert system, similar to Amber Alerts, to seek public assistance in finding suspected killers of law enforcement officers. And if drivers in our region could be provided with travel times to destinations, the likes of which are seen in and around Portland and Seattle, that would help motorists make navigational decisions.

So keep your eyes peeled. More information could be coming your way on state highways. Just be careful not to neglect your No. 1 task: enhancing public safety with attentive driving, riveted more on the road than on the signs.