Behind The Screens: Who Makes Wisconsin's Witty Traffic Signs?

Jan 31, 2020

When you’re driving to work, there’s nothing worse than seeing a traffic sign that shows delays ahead. But if you’re like firefighter Drew Schuster, there's one thing you look forward to seeing: the witty safety messages.

"I travel to and from Mequon and Germantown, probably at least five or six times a week, to Milwaukee, so I passed by the signs all the time. Every week there's something new," he explains.

Schuster describes them as “dad jokes,” and you might be familiar with some of them, like: “Camp in the Woods, Not the Left Lane,” or “Life is Fra-Gee-Lay, Slow Down.” All of these messages come from the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, specifically its Traffic Management Center.

Over the past year, there's been an influx in these snappy traffic messages.
Credit WisDOT Traffic Camera

The center is responsible for managing traffic using a variety of tools, including roadway sensors, cameras on the highway, and digital traffic boards, also known as dynamic message signs. These signs offer a lot of different information to drivers throughout Wisconsin, including travel times and weather advisories. They’re also a prime spot to include these safety reminders.

And over the past year, you may have noticed an influx in these snappy traffic messages. That’s thanks to Jon Riemann, the man writing and editing these messages.

The dynamic message board changes after a traffic engineer types in the day's safety reminder.
Credit Joy Powers

"When I started about a year ago, I started saying we could be doing more. We can certainly be getting more creative with them, doing them more often and all that, so now we're up to somewhere ... around 20 to 22 days," says Reimann.

It should be noted that this is just a small part of his job. Riemann's a communications manager, so he doesn’t spend his whole day writing these messages.

He also doesn’t come up with all of them by himself. He relies on a team of people from around Wisconsin that include folks from law enforcement, traffic engineers, and safety engineers — the same people who interact with the traffic management center on a daily basis. There's a hodge podge of emails and phone calls, suggesting different messages for the monthly calendar.

Jon Riemann looking over an old calendar of safety messages at the WisDOT's Traffic Management Center in Milwaukee.
Credit Joy Powers

Coming up with these messages is both an art and a science.

"It can be a challenge, because we are dealing with a very finite number of characters. I always like to say it’s worse than Twitter, you know, where you get the 240 characters. This is three lines of 18 characters. So you’re pretty limited as to trying to get a message out in a very succinct manner," says Riemann.

Wisconsin isn’t the only state trying to zhuzh up its safety reminders. But it does stand out among the crowd, in part due to the volume of messages each month.

"I did actually hear from a colleague in another state and I won't call him out, but when we asked how, what's your frequency of, you know, change on it, and the email that I got back was something to the effect of, we've had the same message up for about six months now," he says, laughing. Compared to the 15 messages WisDOT had in just the month of January, that is a little laughable.

The website 511wi.gov shows the location of all the message signs in Wisconsin. Shown here are the message signs in the Milwaukee area.
Credit Screenshot / Wisconsin Department of Transportation

Many states play on local cliches. In Wisconsin that means things like, “Make it to Deer Camp, Drive Sober.” In other states, like Louisiana, Reimann says they get a bit more risque, with phrases like, “Slow the flock down.” And you might be asking yourself: At what point are these messages less about safety and more about entertainment?

It’s unclear how effective these signs are in Wisconsin. But it seems like Louisiana's racy messages are having a real impact.

"They did a study on some of the messages that they had on one of their Causeway bridges, and they did actually notice a reduction in crashes that were happening because they were reminding people to slow down and don't tailgate and all that. So, while a lot of it may be anecdotal, there is enough belief that there is an impact that happens with these messages," Riemann explains.

But let’s get back to Schuster's core question about Riemann: "I wanted to know is it in fact a dad that's writing these because who else can come up with that kind of humor," Schuster says.

Jon Riemann being interviewed at WisDOT's Traffic Management Center in Milwaukee.
Credit Joy Powers

The answer is yes — Riemann happens to be a father, which adds to his dad-joke credentials. But his son William is just 2-years-old, and Riemann says he’s really just approaching the first level of dad-joke punnitry.

Regardless of dad-credentials, Schuster's still impressed with Riemann's work.

"I feel like the hardest thing in the world is to think of a joke when somebody tells you, 'Hey, tell me a joke.' So having that deadline of every week having to come up with something new, I give credit to him," he says.

Whether or not you enjoy these messages, Riemann says that if it just makes you think about driving safely, it’s all worth it.

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