Sign of life: Kentucky uses dynamic messages -- well-said -- to encourage highway safety

Distracted driving, seat belt use focus of effort

After years of stressing the dangers of distracted driving, the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet is using existing technology in a new way to get the message to drivers when it matters most: while they are behind the wheel.

Using 75 dynamic message signs already in place across the state, the Transportation Cabinet is relaying safety messages with a punny, not preachy, tone directly to drivers.

The signs, located above and on the shoulder of the highways and other high-traffic roads, already are used to display messages related to road conditions, speed limits, construction and law enforcement efforts. Fourteen of the signs are in Northern Kentucky.

“People aren’t in tuned to law enforcement messaging. We want people to pay attention so we need to reach them in a way that’s engaging,” said Dr. Noelle Hunter, executive director of the Kentucky Office of Highway Safety.

Hunter's office provides traffic safety grant funding to law enforcement agencies and educational programs to schools and communities in an effort to reduce crashes, injuries and fatalities on Kentucky roadways.

Highway fatalities in Kentucky increased last year, according to the highway safety office and Kentucky State Police.

There were 761 fatalities in 2015, 89 more than 2014. Of the fatalities last year, 51 percent were not buckled up, and 18.7 percent involved alcohol. More than 36 percent involved speeding or aggressive drivers. Motorcyclists accounted for 80 fatalities, with 65 percent not wearing helmets.

First-quarter results for 2016 show a trend toward a decrease in roadway fatalities.

Data show Boone, Kenton and Campbell counties, being among the more heavily populated of Kentucky's counties, routinely rank in the top 40 counties in the commonwealth for impaired-driving infractions.

The increase in fatalities is partly driven by the growing social acceptance of dangerous driving behaviors. Those include texting while driving, speeding, impaired driving and not wearing a seatbelt, according to Erin Eggen, Kentucky Transportation Cabinet, Office of Public Affairs.

“We want people to understand that wearing a seat belt is your best protection against a speeding driver, a distracted driver and an impaired driver, but over half of those killed each year on Kentucky roadways are unrestrained," she said. "Our primary message to all motorists would be to buckle up.  Not only is it your best defense against injury and death, it is the law.” 

Messages will correlate with holidays or current highway safety campaigns. The first messages went up in March with basketball and St. Patrick’s Day themes. Messages in April will focus on work zone awareness, distracted driving and sharing the road with motorcycles, while May will feature a Kentucky Derby-themed message sure to make drivers chuckle.

“We are throwing everything we have at this problem," Hunter said. "This is one more opportunity to encourage drivers exactly where we need them to be -- in their vehicles. We are encouraging better decisions when behind the wheel."

Several other states, including Arizona, Tennessee, Missouri, Minnesota and Utah, already use their electronic signage to share quips with an objective of changing driving behaviors.

The growing number of states using the technology in a similar fashion has spurred the Federal Highway Administration to research the effectiveness of safety awareness messages on dynamic message signs. A recent U.S. Department of Transportation report about the public's perception of safety messaging showed that 54 percent of drivers indicated that seeing safety campaign messages on dynamic message signs in the past had caused them to change their driving.

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