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Are COVID messages on highway signs legal?

By Pete Bianco

Electronic signs along the arterial and other New York State highways have been used to deliver messaging regarding COVID, but is this legal?

Technically, these signs are called Variable Message Signs or VMS. In a 2019 press release, Governor Cuomo announced that the installation of additional VMSs that will give motorists the most up-to-date information on road conditions and traffic.

In 2019 there have been 143 VMS units added to roads bringing the total to more than 550 VMS boards in New York State. The stated purpose of the initiative is for managing traffic during heavy snowstorms, extreme weather, vehicular crashes and other events that impact travel.

Should the State be using the signs for messages not related to travel?

Page 86 of the Department of Transportation guidelines on VMS states “It is important to remember that the Variable Message Sign (VMS) is a traffic control device [that is Federally regulated.] The primary function of the VMS shall always be to communicate to motorists actual roadway conditions on the route ahead.”

Chapter 3 of the same DOT publication states that having a sign remain blank is a higher priority than Safety Campaigns, and further notes that “safety messages should never be used on a day to day basis. In general, unless there is important information relating to the road or traffic conditions ahead, the signs should remain blank.”

In spite of this rule, signs here in Oneida County and across the State have been continuously alerting drivers, day after day, with messages like the following.

An official at DOT’s System Optimization Bureau said these types of messages shouldn’t be on for more than a week or so in one location.

See what the signs are saying currently here.

The health behavior messages, such as, “social distance,” “wear a mask,” or “COVID is still a risk,” don’t have to do with road conditions. Therefore, these messages are a distraction to motorists safe travel creating  liability for those instituting the messages.



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