Proposal: Use highway signs to communicate

Local men suggest that state change policy to let localities change messages

By Patty Hastings, Columbian breaking news reporter

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Every time Sgt. Shane Gardner drives by the electronic sign posted above Interstate 5 near WSU Vancouver, he typically reads the same messages again and again: "WSDOT sign test in progress." "DUI patrols tonight."

Max Ault, former legislative assistant to Rep. Tim Probst, noticed the same thing as he drove to the WSU campus. His friends and colleagues said they no longer took the signs seriously.

What if, they wondered, local officials could control what these electronic signs say?

The signs could impart public safety messages by warning drivers of poor road conditions, alerting them to a current emergency, letting people know that auto prowls are on the rise or offering a safe driving tip.

"The possibilities are endless," said Gardner, of the Clark County Sheriff's Office.

Ault said drivers would pay more attention to electronic signs if they updated frequently with local information.

"You kind of whitewash the public safety value by putting the same message over and over and over again," he said.

The Washington Department of Transportation controls electronic signs around the state, using them to publicize Amber alerts, bridge lifts, construction and accidents that are blocking lanes or causing congestion.

Messages, controlled by operators at regional traffic management offices, follow specific templates. The message has to be important enough to take a driver's eyes off the road for a second, said Abbi Russell, spokeswoman for WSDOT. It also has to fit on the sign.

"How they're managed is pretty tight," Russell said.

Each sign is controlled individually. If there's a bridge lift in progress, for instance, an operator will put in a message on each sign along the I-5 corridor as far north as Ridgefield.

While WSDOT works closely with the Oregon Department of Transportation and the Washington State Patrol for traffic updates and alerts, there is no precedent for it to work with local authorities, Russel said.

In their vision for the project, Ault and Gardner said WSDOT would still have right-of-way and could override local messages with important state or regional alerts.

Ault drafted a letter to Secretary of Transportation Paula Hammond proposing the idea. He presented the letter to local police chiefs at a recent local law enforcement meeting. Interim Vancouver Police Chief Chris Sutter, Clark County Sheriff Garry Lucas, Ridgefield Police Chief Carrie Greene, Washougal Police Chief Ron Mitchell, Battle Ground Police Chief Bob Richardson, La Center Interim Chief Erin Nolan and Lt. Dave Stephensen of the WSU Vancouver Police Department all signed the letter. The chiefs agreed to submit a preliminary list of public safety and crime prevention messages they would air on electronic signs in their jurisdictions.

Ault added signatures from local legislators and sent the letter to Secretary Hammond last week.

While Ault and Gardner wait for a response, they're fleshing out the idea and considering other authorities to bring into the project.


Patty Hastings: 360-735-4513; twitter.com/col_cops; patty.hastings@columbian.com.