In Our View: Roadside Reminders

Could highway signs be better used? State should consider local suggestion



Our most fervent suggestion for highway message boards — “Read Columbian editorials” — no doubt would receive a swift and deserved trip to the round file of some state transportation official. But there are other, more serious recommendations that should be considered.

That’s why we support a letter from six local legislators asking the Washington State Department of Transportation to work with local officials to expand the repertoire of messages on roadsides and overpasses. None of the current messages will rank on the New York Times Best Sellers list of literature, but they’re not supposed to. The purpose of the message boards is to alert drivers with details about congestion, traffic emergencies, construction, weather and other driving conditions.

But for much of the time, highway message boards remain blank, or show only the breathlessly inconsequential “sign test in progress.” Six local legislators (including former state Rep. Tim Probst, who lost a bid for state senator), signed a Dec. 12 letter to Secretary of Transportation Paula Hammond asking the state to allow expanded use of the signs. And that letter is signed by Clark County Sheriff Garry Lucas, plus six other local law enforcement leaders.

They make two good points, first, that “open and positive cooperation between WSDOT and local/regional public safety agencies in further utilization of these signs would be extremely beneficial to the public’s safety” and, since we’re talking about large amounts of public money devoted to building and using message boards, expanding their use “would maximize our investment in these signs.”

According to a Sunday Columbian story by Patty Hastings, the letter was drafted by Max Ault, former legislative assistant to Probst. And the letter goes to great length to affirm that “right-of-way for these signs is held solely by WSDOT and that any and all messages mandated by WSDOT at anytime must override those currently being displayed regionally.” But it also recognizes reality: Dark signs serve no purpose, and when a local agency can enhance public awareness, why not allow such outside-the-box use of the message boards?

Two fairly vague principles come into play here. There is the suspicion that too many messages can dangerously distract drivers, whose attention should be diverted only for emergency updates and other warnings. But there’s also the belief that under-use of the signs — or using the boards for anti-drunken driving public service announcements — puts some drivers in the habit of ignoring the signs. In that case, fresh updates could make the message boards even more effective.

We’d like to see a few reminders of old laws: “Left lane for passing only” or “use lights in bad weather” or “tailgating is deadly” or the time-honored “love your kids at home, belt ’em in the car.”

When one level of government asks another to increase communication — in this case, local law enforcement officials asking state transportation leaders to discuss message-board use — it’s a doubly good idea to do both: ask, and then grant such requests. Let the meetings begin.