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Behind the screens of the VMS, and downtown detours

Posted by Nichole Davis  August 7, 2013 01:10 AM

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There's more and more of those VMS boards popping up on area highways - VMS meaning "Variable Message Signs":

vms_pic.jpg

Image credit: Rhode Island Department of Transportation

My pal Emil wrote to me recently with an inquiry about the content on these boards:

"I remember a while ago, there was a big stink about "GO SOX" and "GO PATS" showing up on VMS boards on the Pike, and how the boards should only be used to motorist info. Now, I'm seeing them with messages reminding me to renew my registration, and more recently, telling me that fireworks are illegal, and I'm subject to arrest or a fine. A couple of years ago, when they were having that beetle problem in Worcester, they said we shouldn't move firewood. If they're going to put these things up, then I'm OK with "GO BRUINS!" or other such messages.

I kind of question ones like "OUI: Over the limit, under arrest/Use designated driver". I don't think I know anyone who *doesn't* know that driving under the influence is a crime, and I honestly don't think that seeing that message on the highway will make someone think "I should get Charlie to drive, so I can get plastered!" The same goes for the warnings about texting and driving. Most reasonable people know they shouldn't be doing that, regardless of whether they still do it anyway.

Anyway, would you be interested in quizzing your contacts at MassDOT about what is and isn't appropriate for messages on VMS boards, and why I'm seeing more messages that aren't related to motorist info?"

John also wrote in with his gripes about the VMS - namely, that the messages are just too long and, because of that, aren't effective at all:

"Imagine you're driving in heavy rain trying to figure out where the road is. A flashing message comes out of the mist, distracts you from driving, and tells you that the road is wet. That kind of idiocy gets people killed...

Last year a multi-screen message warned of construction. I transcribed from memory later as "blah blah blah construction ahead masspike blah blah blah 2 left lanes closed". Could have been one screen: "left lanes closed 3 miles ahead." If only they had a brain. When the tanker rolled over on Route 3 in May MassDOT must have dragged the sign writer out of bed to warn drivers. The sign could have said "right lanes closed ahead". Instead I got somebody's life story, plus another panel saying "reduce speed." They're obsessed with saying reduced speed.

There was a good message during the blizzard when the sign guy must have been sent home as non-essential. "Statewide travel ban at 4 pm" is clear. It is useful. It fits on one screen."

The big question that keeps coming up is, namely, why are the signs being used for more than just traffic information? The policy that's in place right now determining what is displayed on the signs dates back to 2012 - and it replaces an earlier mandate that dated back to 2005. Sara Lavoie at the Department of Transportation sent me the policy, along with a copy of a request to air a public safety message on the signs and some diagrams as to how the signs are laid out. Here's what I gathered after rifling through all of it.

According to the DOT policy, VMS units are only allowed to display "traffic information" or "public safety campaigns" - nothing that veers outside of those. For traffic information, the options to display are relatively straightforward:

  • Estimated travel times, significant delays, accidents and other incidents
  • Emergency routes during evacuations, security incidents, and similar situations
  • Lane closures, road work, alternate routes for construction, rough pavement, upcoming projects that might close the road or cause significant delays
  • Speed limit information for a certain stretch of road

Also considered to be "traffic information" are some examples that could, seemingly, also fall under "public safety", if you ask me:

  • Weather conditions (blizzard, hurricane, tidal wave, so on)
  • Special events that could have impacts on traffic (parades, sporting events, et al)

And then there's an option for shuttle and parking availability at Park and Ride lots, but I'd imagine that's of much less importance than construction or delay information.

"Public safety" campaigns between MassDOT and the state police can be advertised on signs statewide. Most often, the campaign you'll see is an Amber Alert by request of the state police. MassDOT can choose, however, to assist local law enforcement or government agencies in advertising their safety initiatives on various topics. State police don't have to ask to run a campaign - if they need something broadcast, they will always get permission. Same goes for DOT-sponsored events and messages, like free tolls or something similar.

According to the policy, requests from any other agency - which can range from police departments to environmental services to who knows what - all have to clearly explain why their message is necessary for the VMS. They have to lay out exactly which geographic area they need covered, how long they want the message to be run, and - most importantly, a "compelling reason" why VMS are the most effective and needed way to send the message. The agencies also have to provide to the DOT any other channels that they may have already used, or are planning on using, to get their message out. This could involve TV, radio, blogs, websites, the works.

Once that request comes in, MassDOT Director of Communications Cyndi Roy then has to approve each and every request. No advertising is ever allowed on the VMS. Local events can't even be promoted, no matter the agency, unless the message fits the strict requirements about what is appropriate to broadcast.

As I mentioned, I was given a copy of the request made this spring by State Fire Marshal Stephen Coan to Secretary Richard Davey for permission to air PSA's regarding fireworks on the VMS. Coan asked Davey if it was possible to broadcast the message between May 17th and July 7th - the peak time when people start to bring fireworks over the border from New Hampshire and other states to prepare for Independence Day celebrations.

In his effort to provide a "compelling reason" for the broadcasts, Coan noted that fireworks are illegal and asked for the DOT's help to "educate people and deter them from breaking the law". He requested that the messages be aired on I-91, 95 and 93, along with Route 1, near the border with New Hampshire. Messages were requested on northbound signs for Fridays and Saturdays, and southbound sides for Sundays.

Coan also stressed in his explanation that transporting fireworks over state lines can be dangerous. He described one incident in which fireworks exploded as a man was driving them back to Massachusetts from New Hampshire. The man was burned, his truck went up in flames, and $4000 dollars in damage was sustained from the incident. Yikes.

As you may have seen, the fireworks messages were approved and aired in the requested areas. There's other locally-generated messages (called "periodic campaigns") that have run recently as well:

  • "Free coffee" signs can be seen near all service plazas on the Pike and Route 24, along with Route 3 (only southbound, in Plymouth), 128/95 (near plazas in Beverly, Newton and Lexington), and Route 6 (only westbound, in Barnstable).
  • Convention center directions are, obviously, only aired in the Boston area.
  • Speed limit restrictions, except in the case of a statewide travel ban, generally only air on the Pike, along with tandem and propane tanker restrictions during the wintertime.
  • Messages for Logan parking restrictions only run on "inbound" roads inside 495, but you'll also find some on the Pike in the Worcester area if there's a free board.
  • "Stop aquatic invasives" campaigns run on boards in Western Massachusetts - so you'll find these on I-91, 291, and western areas of the Pike.
  • The firewood message that Emil mentioned ran primarily on 93 and the Pike, but was also run on available boards statewide that weren't already being used.

There's a few messages that are set as defaults, for lack of a better term, and run most of the time in all areas:

  • No texting: "Don't text and drive / $100 fine"
  • OUI: "Obey speed limits / OUI will get you arrested"
  • Emergency vehicles: "It's the law / move over / slow down"

So, that's why you won't see messages about local sports teams, as much as we all love them, on these signs. As cool as it is when we win the seasonally-applicable championship (knocking on wood, go Sox!) - it's tough to justify it as a traffic issue (unless you're talking about traffic to the venue) or a public safety campaign (unless there's some sort of a riot? Maybe? Even then, that's a stretch).

As for why the messages in some cases are so long, I didn't get much of an answer on that. The literature I was given does mention that messages are amended for the smaller VMS units, but I'm going to have to follow up more on who crafts the exact messages for air. So, John, that's one piece of this puzzle that I'm still working on for you. What I believe should be the case is that, if there's a significant jam, non-essential information broadcasts should be kept to a minimum. If there's wide open road, maybe just put the info on every other VMS board, or have certain times of day (perhaps the midday) when they don't broadcast the messages at all. Who knows. There's got to be some sort of middle ground that can be reached on message frequency.

And as for if some of these campaigns are too "common sense" ... well, some could argue that you can never tell who has common sense and who doesn't. We could assume that for every smart driver out there, there's another one that is reckless. For the texting and driving messages, some teen barreling down the Expressway trying to text his buddy that he'll be there in fifteen minutes might glimpse it and put the phone down. The "free coffee" signs could be useful for that person barely awake on the Pike that still has 40 miles to go before her next exit. There must have been some reason that the messages about emergency vehicles prompted authoring - it's a basic tenet of driving school that, seemingly, some people forget.

Essentially, the VMS are becoming another way for state agencies to reach a large amount of people with significant information - kind of like those text messages that you get during severe storms or tornado warnings that make that really loud noise that could wake up the dead. Do you find the VMS helpful when you're driving? Do you think they're being utilized too much or not enough? Let me know in the comments.
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Thanks for all your questions that you've been sending to me via email! I'm working on several of those for upcoming entries. If you have any traffic-related or rail-related curiosities, feel free to email me at commuting.boston@gmail.com.
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You'll find slowdowns here...

Lower Deck/O'Neill Tunnel southbound

Three left lanes will be closed on the Lower Deck through the O'Neill Tunnel on Thursday from 11:00 PM to 5:00 AM.
The ramp from Essex Street to the O'Neill Tunnel will close on Thursday from 11:00 PM to 5:00 AM.
The ramps from Haymarket Square to the O'Neill Tunnel southbound and the Callahan Tunnel will close Wednesday from 11:00 PM to 5:00 AM.
The ramp from Albany Street to the Expressway southbound will close on Thursday from 11:00 PM to 5:00 AM.

Expressway / O'Neill Tunnel northbound

The ramp from Frontage Road to the Expressway northbound will close on Thursday from 10:00 PM to 5:00 AM.

Mass Pike westbound

The ramp from Congress Street to the Ted Williams Tunnel westbound will close on Thursday from 11:00 PM to 5:00 AM.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Nichole Davis is a Boston-based traffic reporter and news anchor. She’s been seen and heard on television and radio airwaves across New England since 2003, providing commuters with all the More »

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