Paul Merrill, Michael Cole and Adam Grotton (left to right) are the Maine Department of Transportation team behind those highway signs alongside Maine highways that inject humor into road safety messages. Credit: Courtesy of Paul Merrill

Anyone who has driven on Interstate 95 in Maine over the past few years has seen them. In many cases, they probably elicited a chuckle as you drove past.

They’re not from a witty business, a sarcastic motorist or mischievous Maine wildlife, however. They’re the clever, punny phrases that Maine Department of Transportation staff have programmed into the electronic signs that dot the hundreds of miles of federal highway that fall under their jurisdiction. And, in more recent years, they’ve been accompanied by equally funny and pun-tastic social media posts on Maine DOT’s Facebook and Instagram.

Whenever there’s notable weather, a holiday, major sporting event or even just a typical weekend, DOT spokesperson Paul Merrill and his team have a carefully crafted, no more than 48-character statement for the occasion.

Credit: Courtesy of Maine Department of Transportation

“We have a big working document with a very long list of ideas in it for every type of category,” Merrill said. “They’re not all winners. But you know when you’ve got a good one.”

The Maine DOT began writing funny highway signs just before Christmas in 2016. Maine DOT senior engineer Joyce Taylor had seen transportation departments in other states, including Arizona, Tennessee and Kansas, have a lot of success injecting a little levity into their signage and wanted to try the same for Maine.

That first year, the signs simply read “Santa sees you when you’re speeding.” But in the ensuing years, Maine DOT has turned those big orange flashing highways signs into an ever-evolving creative writing project — a platform for its outpourings of goofy, public safety-inspired poetry.

Some classics? Christmas: “The best unopened gift? Your airbag.” Valentine’s Day: “I think we click. Love, Your Seatbelt.” The Fourth of July: “Let freedom ring — hang up the phone.” During busy summer travel weekends: “A cold suppah’s better than a hot ticket” and “Camp in the woods, not the left lane.”

Credit: Courtesy of Maine Department of Transportation

And when the New England Patriots were in the Superbowl in 2019, the team came up with some all-time gems: “87 is Gronk’s number — not the speed limit,” and, after they won, “Both hands on wheel — admire all 6 rings.”

“It’s got to be a message about safety, and it’s got to be helpful, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have fun with it,” Merrill said. “Whether you love them or hate them, you’re talking about them, whether it’s about not using your phone and driving, buckling up, not speeding or whatever it might be about. It elevates the discussion about being safe on the roads.”

The team, composed of Merrill, photographer Adam Grotton and digital media coordinator Michael Cole, brainstorm ideas regularly, and also jot down things that pop into their heads at random, adding them to their master list of ideas. Grotton hopes that someday one of his hip hop-themed sign ideas will make it to the big time. But, given that the team prefers that the phrases appeal to all ages, it might be a while before that happens.

“I still submit them, and they still get turned down,” Grotton said. “We have a wall of shame in the office where they mostly live.”

There are also major space limitations. On the flashing road signs, there are just two programmed panels that the signs switch between, each made up of three lines of eight characters, including spaces. That means words like “Thanksgiving” and “Halloween” are out of the question, and that if it can’t be said in 48 characters, it just won’t work.

Luckily, social media allows them unlimited space, as well as the added benefit of an entire internet’s worth of memes to parody.

And the team knows that when there’s something vitally important, like dangerous weather or another safety hazard, it’s time to dispense with the jokes and get straight to the facts. There are state and federal laws around what can and can’t be posted on a highway road sign, so no matter the level of humor that accompanies it, it has to be about public safety.

When the coronavirus pandemic came to Maine in March 2020, it wasn’t long after that that the Trump administration authorized transportation departments nationwide to show pandemic-related messages on their highway signs. Mask and social distancing puns, like “Stay wicked fah apaht” and “Spread facts, not germs,” became the new task for the Maine DOT team.

“We collaborate with other agencies and run the proposed message by the CDC and the governor’s office to make sure they’re good with it. I know one of the ideas was Commissioner Lambrew’s,” Merrill said, referring to Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew.

Though they have asked the public in the past to come up with sign ideas — including one instance a couple of years ago in which they received around 1,800 submissions — Merrill, Grotton and Cole have thought up the vast majority of the signs.

“We get requests from other public agencies or from businesses, but we have to turn them down,” Merrill said. “But it’s great that it’s become a topic of conversation. If we can make sure people are talking about being safe, then we have done our jobs.”

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Emily Burnham

Emily Burnham is a Maine native and proud Bangorian, covering business, the arts, restaurants and the culture and history of the Bangor region.