PHOENIX — Among the countless products and promotions tied to the latest “Star Wars” movie — Kylo Ren Christmas tree ornaments, anyone? — the Arizona Department of Transportation has come up with its own twist.
“Trust the force,” say electronic highway signs around the state, “but always buckle up.”
Since last week, Arizona has been broadcasting on its highway boards some punchy public service announcements with a pop culture twist, capitalizing on the release of the new “Star Wars” film. Gone are the days when the most memorable warning beamed to motorists in Phoenix was “Drive hammered, get nailed.” Now they are also told, “Aggressive driving is the path to the dark side.”
Unsafe driving is a big problem all over the country, and especially so this time of the year, when drinking and celebrating often go hand in hand. In Arizona, the highest number of alcohol-related deaths on highways last year occurred on Thanksgiving and Christmas, according to official statistics. Over all, one in three highway fatalities in the state was linked to alcohol in 2014, a rate that mirrored national trends.
Electronic boards are commonly used for broadcasting alerts about the risks of driving drunk, or driving too fast, or driving without a seatbelt. They also tell drivers about road conditions, lane closings and estimated commute times — anxiety amplifiers, they usually are, not vessels for creativity. The medium itself carries tight constraints: Messages must be clear and delivered in no more than three lines, 18 characters per line.
Traditional approaches — in Arizona and elsewhere — have alternated between fear mongering and threats. When the Iowa Department of Transportation started its “Message Monday” program in 2013 to encourage safe driving, it chose a straightforward tone. “Buckle up, it’s a good idea” was one slogan. “Drive sober or get pulled over” was another.
But then came Twitter, giving transportation departments across the country a useful tool to speak to younger audiences (hopefully, when those people are not actually driving). Social media specialists — some of them millennials, all of them comfortable in the world of digital communications — joined public information teams, carrying the conversational, sometimes playful tone of tweets into other media.
“Sometimes, you have to step out of the box to make yourself heard,” said Kevin Biesty, the deputy director for policy at the Arizona Department of Transportation.
Some years ago, the department added four public information officers to help disseminate information on driving conditions to motorists. Once, one of these officers posted a picture of a road in northern Arizona after a snowstorm, noting the similarities between the snow-covered bushes and a family of Sasquatches — a.k.a. Bigfoots — which got people talking and reporters from other countries calling to ask if the sighting was real.
Some weeks ago, around conference tables at the highway department’s headquarters and its traffic operations center — where roads are monitored on dozens of computer screens — the communications team exchanged ideas for safe-driving messages that could jolt drivers out of their motoring stupor.
A result was “Drinking & driving go together like peas & guac,” a dig at a widely mocked recipe in The New York Times for guacamole with green peas. Guacamole — the pea-less variety — is a local favorite, so presumably many people saw the social media firestorm that the recipe ignited when it was posted to Twitter in July.
Last week, the Arizona governor, Doug Ducey, tweeted a picture of one of the “Star Wars”-themed signs, along with his own attempt at “Star Wars” humor: “May the force be with you on the roads this Christmas season,” he wrote, adding the hashtag for the new film, #TheForceAwakens.
”Part of highway safety is alertness, and if the signs say the same thing day after day, people forget to read them, forget what they say,” Mr. Ducey said in an interview.
Illinois came up with a novel approach last year when it launched a series of videos called “The Driving Dead” (after “The Walking Dead”), which delivered safe-driving messages as actors tried to escape a zombie apocalypse.
In Iowa, where the idea of “Star Wars”-themed highway messages got started, a brainstorming session yielded so many choices that the Transportation Department offered some of them to other states.
Utah took two, said John Gleason, a spokesman for the Utah Department of Transportation. One was “Be a rebel, not a clone, put down the phone.” The other was “Texting and driving leads to the dark side.”
“Star Wars” geeks at the Utah department (“We have several, actually,” Mr. Gleason conceded) came up with two more: “Yoda says buckle up you must” and “May the seatbelt be with you.”
Utah’s original plan was to display the messages on Dec. 14. But a snowstorm clobbered the Salt Lake City area that day, so the signs had to be used to inform drivers of road conditions.
Instead, the messages went up on Friday, coinciding with the release of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” 38 years after the first movie in the series opened in theaters and became an instant phenomenon.
“Everybody is talking about it, everybody is talking about ‘Star Wars,’” Mr. Gleason said. “Why not take advantage of that?”
Willy Sorenson, a traffic and safety engineer at the Iowa Department of Transportation, is in charge of 74 electronic boards on Iowa highways, among other duties. He said the idea for “Star Wars” messages to coincide with the movie’s release had come from his boss during a drive back from a highway-safety conference about a month ago.
He and a colleague on the department’s communications team began playing with the film’s famous quotes. They hoped, Mr. Sorenson said, to be “that voice in the back of the minds of drivers, reminding them that they shouldn’t be texting and driving, that they should calm down while driving, buckle up.”
Among some drivers, at least, that is exactly what has happened. Sue Krieger and her brother were on Route 202 last week to pick up a highchair she had bought for her daughter when she spotted the sign Mr. Ducey had tweeted about.
“We both started laughing,” said Ms. Krieger, 55, a first-grade teacher in Phoenix. “Then we had a great conversation about it.”