EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

March 5, 2014

N.H. drivers like highway message boards

Billboards are popular on highways

By Alex Lippa
alippa@eagletribune.com

---- — They are generally less than 10 words long, but a lot of thought goes into the messages on the electronic billboards along Interstate 93.

“We have a list of messages that have been pre-approved by committees,” said Matt Plantier, a supervisor at the New Hampshire Traffic Management Center. “We’ve got all types of messages for winter storms and other uses.”

Readers listed the electronic message boards as one of the “603 Reasons” New Hampshire is special.

New Hampshire State Police and the New Hampshire Traffic Management Center work together to get messages to motorists. Whether it’s an Amber Alert or an accident ahead, the state wants drivers to get messages as quickly as possible.

“It’s gone very well,” Plantier said. “Our goal is to get the information out to the public within a 10-minute window. As soon as we hear about it, we try to get it on there.”

Lask week, the signs flashed, “Winter Weather. Thurs p.m. Plan Ahead.”

“We’re very limited to what we can say,” Plantier said. “Most of the message boards are limited to three lines, and only eight characters per line. We can’t fit all that we would like on to it.”

State police Lt. Matt Shapiro creates the public service announcements which appear on the message board. He said there’s a trick to how they’re written.

The message boards can only carry messages that involve a single flash, meaning drivers see the first part of the message, then it flashes to reveal the second half.

“We only allow that because we don’t want people staring at the boards for too long,” Shapiro said.

He also writes the messages so that if a driver sees the second part of the message before seeing the first, it still makes sense.

“‘Don’t wreck it all, with one text or call’ can also be read with ‘one text or call, don’t wreck it all,’” Shapiro said. “We don’t want people to have to read three panes for the message to make sense.”

Officials also put some thought into when they schedule the messages that are public service announcements.

“On holiday weekends, we typically show how many traffic deaths there have been so far, with the message, ‘One death is too many,’” Shapiro said. “We then show it again after the weekend and people are surprised to see that the number has changed.”

Local motorists said they appreciate the signs

“ I think they are great,” Derry resident Jennifer Dion said. “(They have) traffic notices, storm alerts, speed limit drops. They flash through the message quick enough and often enough.”

Tanya Tellier of Derry agreed.

“I like them,” she said. “It’s good to know to get off at the next exit if there is another accident ahead.”

But Londonderry resident Rick Aucoin said the messages don’t really affect him.

“I’m going to go the same route regardless,” he said. “I’d rather not know if there’s an accident and think that there’s not going to be any traffic.”

Others said they think the signs can be distracting.

“I find them distracting,” Derry resident Jenna Paradise said. “Anything that is short of one word, such as “slow”, takes your eyes away from the road. It would be great if we all had a passenger riding with us to read it, but we don’t.”

Andrea Crowell of Derry said she sometimes has trouble reading the entire message.

“I like them, although some of them change so slowly that I am only able to read a portion of the message,” she said.

Plantier said while most of the message boards have predetermined messages, several are more advanced. One of their message boards, which sits along I-93 in Methuen, tells motorists how long it would take to get to Manchester.

“It uses a logarithmic equation,” Plantier said. “There are sensors along the highway and the sign will automatically update.”

Plantier said the plan is to keep adding more message boards.

“We have gotten good response,” he said. “We just activated a new board near the tolls in Hooksett. We’d like to add more where we know there is a lot of congestion.”

There are 45 message board throughout the state on I-93, I-95, I-89, Route 101, and the Spaulding and Everett Turnpikes.