Iowa DOT and Safety Go Together Like Pumpkin Spice and the Holidays

If you were driving in Iowa over the Thanksgiving weekend, you probably saw the message on electronic message boards stretched across the state’s major highways – north to south and east to west.

“What doesn’t go with pumpkin spice? Drunk Driving”

Iowa DOT’s pre-Thanksgiving highway safety message

With the holiday season at hand, pumpkin spice is seemingly everywhere. Unfortunately, drunk driving remains nearly ubiquitous. The Iowa Department of Transportation hopes the public makes the connection.

Iowa started posting thought-provoking safety messages on the dynamic message signs in 2013 when then-DOT Director Paul Trombino pushed for Iowa DOT’s traffic engineers to regularly share highway fatality numbers on the signs. The agency called it “Message Monday” and – along with the updated fatality numbers – began sharing messages intended to get people to slow down, buckle their seatbelts and pay attention while behind the wheel.

Willy Sorenson, Iowa DOT traffic and safety engineer, and Tracey Bramble, Iowa DOT information specialist, help lead a group of communicators and engineers that is responsible for thinking up the messages.

“This started off being fun from day one,” said Bramble during a recent interview. “It really is a great collaboration.”

Iowa DOT’s plan was to run a new message every week, and it decided it would rarely, if ever, use a message more than once.

Bramble said the messages that run around the unofficial Star Wars holiday, May 4th, are always popular, as are messages that address driving slow in the left.

“It is people’s biggest pet peeve,” Bramble said.

NBC Nightly News profiled the Iowa DOT safety messages in November 2018.

The Iowa DOT safety team gathers together twice a year to plan six months of messages at a time. Bramble said Iowa DOT gets message suggestions from the public, and many of those make the list.

The draft messages then are reviewed by a larger group of Iowa DOT staff, before getting signoff from top agency management.

Message Mondays eventually evolved into a fully integrated weekly “Roadside Chat” that is updated on Fridays. Each Roadside Chat message is supported with a blog post and social media messages.

Iowa DOT isn’t alone in using its electronic signs for safety messaging. Bramble and Sorenson have developed a national network of department of transportation colleagues that share message ideas. The multi-state collaboration started around the Star Wars messages and grew to become and ongoing conversation and idea sharing.

Despite the seeming popularity of the Iowa messages, and similar efforts in other states, not everyone is a fan, with critics claiming the messages themselves are distracting and that eventually motorists become numb to the signs – potentially ignoring emergency information.

Sorenson, the traffic engineer, appreciates the concerns of his colleagues. But he said the alternative is for DOTs to do nothing and assume people will talk about safety organically.

“That’s not what happens,” Sorenson said. “We want to start a conversation. We want to get you talking.”

Bramble quickly added: “Especially if we can get you talking in the car.”

Ultimately, Bramble and Sorenson said they are trying to change the culture around traffic safety, to get people to slow down and pay attention behind the wheel.

“It’s a massive effort and we’re just doing it one message at a time,” said Sorenson, who described the messages as “the little voice on your shoulder … the voice of reason.”

And that is a voice we all should listen to.

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