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March 2, 2018

Maine DOT throws down challenge to would-be sign composers

Photo / Maine Department of Transportation
Photo / Maine Department of Transportation
The Maine Department of Transportation changeable message signs are familiar to drivers on the state's highways. Now the public is getting a chance to see what they can come up with.

If you commute on Interstate 95, 295 or the Maine Turnpike, you're familiar with them — the Maine Department of Transportation's pithy, sometimes snarky, safety messages:

"Get your head out of your apps"

"87 is Gronk's number, not the speed limit."

On Valentine's Day, there was a plea to click your seatbelt, because someone "wheely" loves you.

They can be funny or, just as often, groan-worthy.

Admit it, there are times you think you could do better, right?

Now's your chance.

The DOT is holding a contest for motorists to come up with their own messages. It began Friday and runs through Sunday, March 18.

DOT spokesman Ted Talbot said the signs, which the department began in 2016, get a lot of feedback. "At one point we had to open it up to the public," he said Friday morning.

He said the humorous tone gets more attention than a more serious one does.

"People appreciate the fact that you don't have to wag a finger," he said. "The old 'buckle up' or 'don't drink and drive,' those are fine, but having a little bit of humor is effective."

The tone gets people talking and paying more attention to the message, he said.

As of 10 a.m. Friday, the department already had 60 entries, though the contest had only been launched on social media hours before.

Public will pick winners

Courtesy / Maine Department of Transportation
Courtesy / Maine Department of Transportation
Here's the rest of the message for the sign "87 is Gronk's number ..."

DOT will pick finalists, who get to choose between three state-recreation or transportation related prizes, and also will see their message displayed on the highway.

The grand finalist in each category — small sign and large sign — will be chosen by public vote. Those winners will also get a street sign with their name on it, made in the DOT's sign shop.

The department throws down a hard-to-resist challenge on its website:

"Are you that person who's always quick with the one-liners? Did your parents always say 'So ya think you're pretty funny do ya?' Does your spouse look at you and say 'You're a real comedian'? Well now's your chance to prove them right! Slap your slapstick on one of our Changeable Safety Message Signs (you know...the ones you see on the highway!). Give us the best pun for the road and we'll make you king of the road!"

The contest also is being promoted on social media, with a 40-second video and #mymainesign hashtag.

The website sets out the guidelines, maybe the first hint that coming up with those messages isn't as easy as it may seem when you're zooming buy at 80, er, 65 miles an hour.

Small "two page" signs have three lines with eight or less characters a line. Spaces count as characters. The larger signs have one "page" with three lines of no more than 16 characters each.

The message must be safety related, and suggested themes include distracted driving, impaired driving (drugs, alcohol, drowsiness), seatbelts, speeding, general safety, wildlife, winter driving and events — things like holidays and sporting events.

Entry links are on the DOT website and contestants can enter as often as they like.

Finalists get to choose from a ride to the top of the Penobscot Narrows Bridge and Observatory, tickets from the Maine State Ferry Service and a vehicle pass to a Maine state park.

Words in lights

The department acknowledges that the prizes are modest — "Hey, we're state government, we don't have a lot of prize money hanging around" — but adds winners will have the "glory" of seeing their words in LED lights.

"Thousands of motorists will have a happier and safer commute thanks to you! Just think of the karma!" the website says.

Normally, a group of people in the department meet with the Creative Services unit and come up with the messages, which are decided several months in advance.

Talbot said that some notable ones — "get your head out of your apps" the most prominent example — also got some negative feedback. "But it got people talking, and that's what we want," he said.

He said the Gronk number message was a very popular one, as was the first one, in the winter of 2016, that warned drivers that Santa sees them when they're speeding.

The department also gets feedback from people complaining about grammar and spelling, but Talbot said it's tough to get a message across with the character limitations.

Maine highway drivers will now get a chance to try it out for themselves.

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