AUTHOR! AUTHOR! State highways manager writes road signs of the times

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DENVER | It’s nearly impossible to miss Sam Cole’s work.

Quietly sprinkled above roadways across the state, his medium is the written word, and it can be silly, sobering or sometimes even sarcastic.

Some recent examples include, “Anger leads to danger,” “It’s not a number it’s a person,” and “Give thanks for safe drivers.”

Sound familiar?

Cole, safety communications manager at the Colorado Department of Transportation, is the man behind those terse, ubiquitous digital safety signs peppered across Colorado’s thoroughfares.

An employee at CDOT for about two-and-a-half years, Cole became the primary gatekeeper of the highway signs at the beginning of 2016, when CDOT started a new awareness campaign, deemed the “memorial project.”

The project updates traffic signs across the state every Wednesday with the number of roadway fatalities which have occurred on Colorado roads this year.

As of Dec 5, that number was 561.

In Aurora, 30 people have died in 26 fatal crashes so far this year, according to CDOT.

Cole said he gets mixed reactions from his messages, ranging from thanks for occasionally providing levity to a dark subject, to condemnation for starting people’s work days on a macabre note.

“People, generally, really like them, and I’ve even had a few families call in who represented a victim and thanked us for putting it up there as a memorial,” Cole said. “Other people have said it’s difficult … to take in first thing in the morning, so they sometimes ask for things more positive instead of the wrecking-my-day type of thing.”

Cole isn’t the sole creator of the messages, however, as ideas for some of the missives come from his fellow CDOT employees, outside communications consultants and, as of this summer, the public. The Transportation Department ran an outreach campaign this spring asking respondents to submit pithy safety slogans via Facebook.

The campaign yielded some of Cole’s favorite phrases, including “Oh cell no,” “Don’t text distra— squirrel!” and “Tech a break.”

Cole said about half of the messages drivers see on the roadways pop into his head “in the middle of the night.”

But it’s up to local programmers to ultimately decide which messages are plugged into the signs, Cole said, as local construction alerts can sometimes trounce the weekly announcements. He said the messages can be broadcast to a few hundreds signs all across the state.

Cole added that safety has become an increasingly important topic for CDOT and the public alike, as trends indicate traffic deaths are up across the board.

The number of road-related fatalities so far this year is already a slight increase from the total number in 2015, according to CDOT statistics. The number of people killed annually on Colorado roadways has risen every year since 2011, but is significantly down from numbers in the early 2000s. The high-water mark for fatalities in the past 14 years came in 2002 — which is as far back as current CDOT data track — when 743 people were killed on Colorado roads.

Motorcycle deaths are also up on the state’s roads, with 118 motorcycle fatalities so far this year, compared to 105 last year and 73 in 2002. Motorcycle deaths have accounted for more than one-fifth of all vehicle-related fatalities so far this year, a list that includes bicyclists, pedestrians, passengers and drivers.

Mortality aside, Cole said a little humor can make those sometimes difficult-to-discuss statistics more digestible.

“Driving is the most dangerous activity most people will do every day,” Cole said. “We think that this is a good opportunity to raise some awareness … and creativity and humor are two things we really try to shoot for.”

Cole’s likely to retain a captive audience: The average travel delay per driven registered vehicle is expected to jump 57 percent in the coming decades, from an average of 8 minutes in 2015 to 12 minutes and 30 seconds in 2040, according to this year’s annual congestion report issued by the Denver Regional Council of Governments. That could mean a 122 percent spike in total person hours of delay in the same 25-year time frame, according to the report.