Unlike some states, Maine can take a witty approach to highway safety.

Danger lurks around every corner when you’re whizzing along behind the wheel at 70 mph. Road safety is no laughing matter.

Then from around the next bend in the road, it appears – 12 feet high and flashing in yellow LEDs. A state-sponsored dad joke.

“GET YOUR HEAD … OUT OF YOUR APPS”

Along Interstate 295, electronic roadside signs sponsored by the state Department of Transportation have been doling out gentle reminders, good advice and pun-filled witticisms, all while hewing to the usually drab responsibility of reinforcing road safety expectations.

“I think there has been an interest to try and get people’s attention in a more light-hearted way,” said Meg Lane, director of creative services for MDOT. Lane is one of the half-dozen or so employees responsible for coming up with the messages.

The funny missives are a break from the heavy-handed and sometimes grim safety reminders of yesteryear, including the trifecta of signs, spaced a few hundred feet apart, reminding drivers to “stay awake,” “stay alert” and “stay alive.”

Maine’s program of witty signs has been given the blessing by the federal highway administrator assigned to Maine – which is not the case in every state. New Hampshire, for instance, is not permitted any plays on words, choosing to live free of humor.

Crafting the right message is a narrow path to walk.

Maine’s auteurs of highway haiku work with a limited canvass that makes a 140-character tweet sound downright chatty.

While some variable message boards are larger, each message must fit on the DOT’s smallest sign, which has just eight characters per line, with two lines of text on the smallest board. Because drivers only have enough time to see the board change once, Lane and her team have a sparse 32 characters in play.

Lane and four or five other state transportation employees are responsible for selecting the messages, vetting out the duds, and brainstorming up new ones.

“It actually can get pretty addictive,” she said.

When the team has narrowed a crop of new messages to three or four finalists, an email poll goes around to the selection group, which includes chief engineer Joyce Taylor, traffic engineer Steve Landry, safety office manager Duane Brunell and DOT spokesman Ted Talbot.

The engineers tend to see things through a more serious lens, and “need a little cajoling at times” when it comes to the humorous suggestions, Lane said.

The team has been crafting the messages since December, when they put out their first six-word knee-slapper, pegged to the holiday season: “SANTA SEES YOU … WHEN YOU’RE SPEEDING.”

“It really exploded on our Facebook page,” Lane said. “So that let us know that we were kind of on to something.”

Other favorites include the Fourth of July chestnut, “LET FREEDOM RING. HANG UP YOUR PHONE.”

On May 4, Star Wars Day, there was “MAY THE 4TH BE WITH YOU, DRIVE SAFELY.”

There are also evergreen messages: “NOT BUCKLED? WHAT’S HOLDING YOU BACK?” and “TEXTING WHILE DRIVING? OH, CELL NO.”

(Luckily, there have been no reports of a crash from a driver pulling an eye-roll muscle.)

The messages appear in two, five-day spurts, usually from Friday to Tuesday each month. Any more frequently, and Lane said she worries that drivers will tire of them and stop paying attention.

Humor is a luxury the DOT can afford only when there aren’t more serious messages to deliver, such as when there are winter weather alerts or crashes ahead.

The DOT soon will phase out the stalwart flashing 45 mph signs, Talbot said, and plans to outfit each exit along I-295 with a variable board so that traffic engineers in Augusta can alert drivers to an accident or delay, and give people the chance to get off the highway.

Talbot said motorists can expect to see the signs, and more highway humor, in the near future.

Matt Byrne can be contacted at 791-6303 or at:

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Twitter: MattByrnePPH