Traffic signals

As useful a barometer traffic signs are for gauging the extent of nerd culture, it sounds like we don't see those messages before too much longer.

Traffic signals
Image: Andrew Liptak

For as long as I've been interested in genre fiction and nerd stuff, there's been this persistent argument that it's a persecuted thing. You've probably heard the stories of kids getting stuffed into lockers or been made fun of for playing Dungeons & Dragons or going to school with a Star Wars lunchbox. It's a mindset that's persisted, even as it's increasingly clear over the last two decades that nerd stuff has dominated pop culture: just look at the success of everything from Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings, Dungeons & Dragons, the rise of cinematic universes and superhero franchises, and... you get the picture.

One of my favorite indicators for just how well this sort of pop culture has penetrated the mainstream world was seeing the words "WINTER IS COMING" in big electric letters on the side of I-89 here in Vermont. That catch phrase from HBO's adaptation of George R.R. Martin's novels, Game of Thrones, works well here in Vermont: the winters here can be brutal, and snow tires are essential six months out of the year.

I've seen these messages pop up up quite a bit over the years here in Vermont and elsewhere. Massachusetts switched their overhead road signs along I-93 on the way to Boston to various Star Wars references last May 4th (as my friend Dan and I were amused to see as we drove down to take part in the Red Sox's Star Wars night), and there's been plenty of other examples that have popped up over the years. They're funny, in that you're catching a reference to something that you're a fan of, and recognize that there's another fan out there programming the signs.

Of course, there's room for error, which brings me to this week's news: the US Federal Highway Administration released a new set of guidelines back in December, in which it specifically says that the messages displayed on the Changeable Message Signs (CMS) should be "simple, direct, brief, legible, and clear," and should not use "messages with obscure or secondary meanings, such as those with popular culture references, unconventional sign legend syntax, or that are intended to be humorous," because they're potentially going to confuse drivers. The rules will take effect in 2026.

Image: Vermont State Police, 2015

The earliest recollection that I have of something like this is of people going up to the traffic control trailers, finding them unsecured, and typing in their own message. Wired has a story of this happening in 2009, and somewhere along the way, you started to see them percolate into official channels.

I reached out to the Vermont Agency of Transportation to ask about this, and VTAOT's Josh Schultz, Operations and Safety Bureau Manager, provided me with the following statement:

"In recent years, the agency has increased its use of fun, funny, and witty highway safety messages. With few exceptions, the public has responded with an overwhelmingly positive appreciation for this type of messaging. Because of this feedback, the agency has continued to create and display these unique messages, along with standard highway safety messages. The funny and witty messages tend to generate conversations among drivers, passengers, coworkers, friends, and family. These conversations indicate a raised awareness of highway safety, so we view this as a positive outcome that we hope will change driver behavior for the better."

The intentions make sense to me: seeing "WINTER IS COMING" along the highway is certainly eye-catching, and it can grab the occasional headline or generate some talk amongst drivers.

Genre fiction has long had a stigma attached to it, often dismissed as fanciful or shallow entertainment because of their mass-produced nature. That's not the entire picture: genre stories have had wide appeal for decades (Frank Herbert's Children of Dune is often cited as the first SF bestselling novel), while J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings enjoyed enormous popularity that's only grown over the decades. But even with those examples, SF, comics, gaming and other such hobbies were often relegated to the side as childish or beneath things proper literature or adult concerns.

I don't think you can make an argument that these sorts of stories haven't grown into mainstream culture in recent years. Just look at Dungeons & Dragons, often held up as that nerdy thing that outcasts did, and how it's become a cultural juggernaut in recent years. When I started playing D&D as a summer camp counselor starting in 2000: at first it was just a couple of friends and I, but by the time I left, a number of our fellow counselors had joined in on the fun – the camp still has D&D as part of its class lineup. It's only gotten bigger since then, with new editions, with the rise gaming podcasts, appearances in big shows like The Big Bang Theory and Stranger Things, and so forth.

D&D is only one part of the picture: it's been joined by countless other big nerd properties, like Marvel's cinematic universe, the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter film franchises, various big television shows like LOST, Battlestar Galactica, Game of Thrones, and so forth. It always boggles my mind that what was once a chunky, dense epic fantasy novel has become the bases for one of the most popular shows in the world.

That's why I've often felt that things such as signs and shirts are good anecdotal examples of just how popular these stories and hobbies are. Tossing "WINTER IS COMING" up onto a traffic sign is a pretty specific reference, but the fact that it exists as such shows how recognizable it is.

At the same time, I can see why the feds want to rein this practice in. Years ago, I read a book by Earl Swift, The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers who Created the American Superhighways. It's an intriguing read that explores how the highway system came together, and one thing that stuck out for me was a description of how much work engineers put into ensuring that highway signs were readable, debating over differing combinations of color, fonts, letter spacing, and so forth. These aren't trivial things to consider! On the side of the road near my house was an older road sign, and surrounded by its modern counterparts, the differences are noticeable.

Clarity is important for safety, and we're in dire need of that. The US Department of Transportation notes that we're in a crisis situation when it comes to traffic fatalities. So, cutting back on some of the fun – but ultimately secondary – messaging makes quite a bit of sense. I can't imagine that a sign like this is responsible for any meaningful number of accidents, but it strikes me as the type of messaging that can be more effective elsewhere. We'll just have to look to other ways to see nerd culture taking root in the wider world.

Image: Andrew Liptak

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