Under-used electronic highway signs


The in basket: I decided to find out recently if the big pedestal-mounted electronic signs that adorn the shoulders of state highways in Kitsap County are as little used at they appear to be. 

“I’ve seen them warn of problems at the Narrows Bridge, and the Hood Canal Bridge, ferry wait times and Amber alerts,” I wrote to a state official, “but I can’t recall the last time I saw a message on one about a temporary Kitsap County disruption.”

When I asked a year ago about announcing slippery conditions in the notorious stretch of Highway 3 near Austin Drive in Bremerton when temperatures drop below freezing, I was told that such a notice wasn’t within the parameters for using the signs.

Another time, Tom Clark of Poulsbo suggested they could save commuters time during the Highway 305 widening project by announcing which lanes are open. I conceded in my inquiry that trying to provide accurate information about something as fluid as lane closures on a highway project probably would create more misinformation than information.

“Can you disabuse me of the notion that they are almost never used for Kitsap County road disruptions of just a day or two,” I asked, “by citing some instances when they were, explain why not if there are no such instances, and generally describe the philosophy for their use that underlies those decisions?” The out basket: Steve Bennett, the traffic engineer for the state’s Olympic Region, provides the state’s position.

“We try hard to provide motorists with accurate, pertinent and timely information without needlessly distracting them from the task of driving or giving out information that is either wrong or out of date,” he said..

“Our concern is that if motorists are presented with messages that do not pertain to actual conditions or a specific need, over time they will tend to ignore these signs altogether.  We want them to recognize that when a message is posted, it is important and worth paying attention to.  

“We have also experienced instances where the changeable message itself has caused congestion as motorists slowed significantly to see what was going on. So we believe there is the risk of doing more harm than good in terms of activating these signs. 

 “Weather-related road conditions such as icy roads can change quickly and sometimes vary from hour to hour, road to road, and within sections of the same road. We do not have the ability to monitor road surface conditions in any way approaching real time or system-wide. So the likelihood of constantly attaining reasonable accuracy is low.  

Further, “we are concerned that by posting an ice message we may be implying that we know on any given stretch of road and hour by hour when a road is icy. The concern is that this may lead drivers to believe that when no message is posted there is no ice on the road. This would not necessarily be the case, and could send a very misleading message.  Using temperature as the indicator really wouldn’t help because of the many cold dry days where the roads remain clear of ice.   

 “All that said,” he concluded, “I think you are correct in your desire to see more construction and maintenance messages posted on the signs. These activities are predictable and can be posted with a high degree of confidence of being accurate. We will be modifying our approach to better include these uses”.

3 thoughts on “Under-used electronic highway signs

  1. As I remember these things cost $350,000 apiece. Now the DOT doesn’t want to use them because drivers might read them?

  2. Thanks, Travis for putting some pressure on the state about those massive, expensive, electronic signs. Keep it up!How many of those signs do we have in the county – about four? What I’d like to know is how much the taxpayers paid for them. I’ve heard the figure of $900,000 – each – tossed about. What a boondoggle. What a waste of taxpayer money. I get furious every time I pass one whether it has a message or not. When it has no message it’s a waste and when it does have a message it’s usually some bit of useless information that doesn’t mean anything anyway.

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