Highway message signs ‘change the culture around traffic safety’

If Avril Lavigne lyrics don’t grab your attention, what will?

Electronic Traffic Sign
An electronic traffic sign over the southbound lanes of U.S. Highway 52 displays a message to drivers Monday, April 10, 2023, in Rochester. The safety message uses popular song lyrics to help make the message memorable.
Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin

ROCHESTER — It’s safe to assume that when Avril Lavigne released her hit song “Girlfriend,” she didn’t imagine its lyrics would be used by state transportation departments to educate drivers on traffic safety.

But, on Monday, April 10, “hey, hey, you, you get off your phone” was displayed on the dynamic message boards on U.S. Highway 52 in Rochester. It’s not the first time hit songs have been used to create traffic safety messages, and it won’t be the last. With Taylor Swift and Shania Twain coming to Minnesota this summer, Kristine Hernandez’s group is brainstorming ways to turn popular lyrics into meaningful messages.

Hernandez is Minnesota’s Toward Zero Deaths program coordinator. Dynamic highway message boards became a popular way to bring attention to traffic safety across the country, with Minnesota adopting and launching its campaign in 2016.

Toward Zero Deaths aims to reduce the number of traffic crashes, injuries and deaths, and shifting how traffic safety is discussed is one way to achieve that.

Hernandez doesn’t imply that a driver reading words that play on Lavigne’s lyrics will immediately decrease the number of crashes in Minnesota, but the messages stick with people.


“The main thing that we wanted people to do is talk about them, because then they're talking about traffic safety, and hopefully making changes in their own behavior,” Hernandez said. “We've done studies that have shown that they remember the messages. People are recognizing what they're for and talking about them.”

Toward Zero Deaths targets young men — who are injured or die on Minnesota roadways at a higher rate than any other group — so using humor or culturally popular and relevant lyrics or movie lines is critical to reach that audience.

Hernandez leads a “secret group,” as she calls it, of eight to 10 people who meet to brainstorm message ideas.

“I look for people that have clever minds,” she said. The group is made of people from the Department of Public Safety and Minnesota Department of Transportation. About four times each year, the group meets to discuss how upcoming holidays or tours can be used to make an engaging message board.

Electronic Traffic Sign
An electronic traffic sign along 12th Street Southwest displays a message to drivers Monday, April 10, 2023, in Rochester.
Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin

Not every message needs to be based on entertainment, though. Hernandez’s personal favorite message was on a fairly mundane topic.

“The one that I love the best came from an engineer. We were saying how do we talk about making sure people securely fasten stuff that's on their car? We've had people lose 50 gallons of paint. Pigs have been on our roads. Bees. Ladders,” Hernandez said. “So my favorite one was ‘Flying mattress? Secure your load.’”

The messages are intended to be funny and spur watercooler talk at work, but the work of spreading traffic awareness is taken seriously. Alerts on crashes or bad weather take precedence over the funny sayings.

“If they're seeing on the cameras that people are slowing down to read them, we turn them off,” Hernandez said. “Safety is first, and then throw in a little humor. It's really trying to change the culture around traffic safety in a positive way.”

Abby Sharpe joined the Post Bulletin in February 2022 after graduating from Arizona State University with a sports journalism degree. She loves sports, '90s sitcoms, historical fiction and Quentin Tarantino movies. Readers can reach Abby at 507-285-7723 or
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