Traffic is one constant of life in Austin. But every so often, there’s something that breaks the monotony of brake lights: a sign reminding you that "You’re not a candle, so don’t drive lit" or "Designate a driver BE-VO the game."
“Around the holidays, there’s some sort of pun that they do,” Evan Hearn, an Austin resident and UT student, said. “No offense to the guy, but they’re really lame, sort of, dad puns that they do.”
Hearn wanted to know who's behind the signs using humor to remind drivers to be safe on the roads, so he asked our ATXplained project to find out.
"Their funny little messages make me laugh on my commute," he wrote.
On the big highways, it’s someone from the Texas Department of Transportation. On toll roads, it could be someone from the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority. On city streets like Lamar Boulevard or Cesar Chavez Street, it’s a team from the City of Austin.
Engineer Joshil Bhatpuria is on that team. He’s not a dad, but he’s proud of his dad jokes.
“I enjoy [coming up with them], but sometimes my co-workers get a little bit tired of it and just retreat to their corner,” Bhatpuria said. “Only the best reach the signs, I would say – or worst. It depends on how you define it.”
Thankfully, he doesn’t always have the final say; it’s a group effort.
“We would come up with something simple that everybody understands, like a Drake reference or Matthew McConaughey reference, and then from there we would just come up with a rhyme, or something quick," Bhatpuria said. "A 15-word reference that would also stick the memory in their head."
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Once the team comes up with an idea, the message goes into a central communication system and then onto the more than a dozen signs the city controls. The messages can even be customized for certain parts of Austin.
Coming up with messages may be harder than it sounds. In 2017, the city asked people to come up with their own signs, and while 15 submissions made the cut, hundreds more were rejected, including: “Cars don’t cuddle, leave some room” and “Everyone yearns for signaled turns.”
But Bhatpuria's boss, Jen Duthie, said it’s not always fun and games. The signs display serious messages, like recent signs aimed at reducing traffic fatalities. Duthie says even the signs with jokes actually serve a serious purpose: They remind people the signs are there.
“So we do get questions sometimes, you know, why are we putting these somewhat silly messages up there," she said. "But they always have a key point that we're trying to get across.”
Even if you haven’t eaten at El Arroyo on West Fifth Street, you probably know the restaurant's other claim to fame: funny signs. And employees there apparently felt Bhatpuria and the other road sign artists were edging in on their turf.
They devoted one of their daily signs to try to figure out who the intern was who was "trying to steal our marquee thunder."
“I was just minorly offended, because on the one hand, I was like – I’m not a TxDOT intern; I work with signals. I’m an engineer,” Bhatpuria said. “On the other hand, I was like – Hey, I got featured on the El Arroyo marquee a little bit, so I’ll take that as a win.”
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After learning the method behind the madness, Hearn also thinks the signs are a win. He says the humor helps people get the message about bad driving behaviors like speeding or blocking intersections.
“We can agree, objectively, that people who block the box are the worst kind of people,” he said. “So maybe by seeing the sign, they will rethink what they’re doing, so that’s actually sort of impactful in the real-world situation.”
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