Impaired driving signs meant to be controversial, official says

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — You may have noticed a series of new messages displayed along local highways. The Rhode Island Department of Transportation (RIDOT) has rolled out attention-grabbing slogans on their electronic signs to try and drive home the dangers of drunk and distracted driving.

The signs feature messages such as “Go Pats! Cheer ’em on but don’t tie one on,” celebrating the Patriots’ playoff run, to the more controversial “Wrap your gifts, not your car around a tree.”

The signs have certainly drawn attention. Some people have even asked if they go too far. Eyewitness News wanted to know what’s behind this new approach to an old problem, so we sat down with RIDOT Director Peter Alviti.

The director said his goal for the next ten years is to not only make sure the roads themselves are safe, but that drivers are making safe choices too. He said his goal is a culture change, and he’s okay if these new signs make you feel uncomfortable.

“Structural and engineering solutions to this kind of a problem of impaired driving only cures part of the problem,” said Alviti. “It deals with people who have already made the decision to get on the highway and drive impaired and then tries to make the highway itself safer with those people on it.”

According to RIDOT, we lost 19 people on Rhode Island roads because of impaired driving in 2015. Those are consequences Alviti believes are avoidable, and now require a different approach.

“We don’t mean to offend people,” he said. “But our intent is to make people feel uncomfortable so that same feeling of discomfort comes about at a point when people are making that decision [to drive impaired]. If only one life is spared as a result of somebody being uncomfortable because they saw one of our signs… then we’re accomplishing what we want to do.”

Alviti said he’s heard complaints and praise over the new campaign. Over the holiday season, the phrase, “Fill potholes, not graves” got a lot of attention.

“It is doing what we wanted it to do,” Alviti said of the campaign. “It is conjuring the discussion where no discussion was before. And part of solving this problem, just like any other problem, is admitting as a society or as a state that the problem is existing. And we begin to formulate a solution to it over time.”

Eyewitness News asked if the new signs are creating a distraction. Alviti explained that his office continues working to make concise messages, which are outside the traditional “Don’t drink and drive” message.

Alviti said these signs are only the beginning of a 10-year program with a goal of zero distracted or impaired driving deaths. According to him, doing that will require a culture change.

“These message signs, anyone that may be uncomfortable seeing them is just the tip of the ice berg in terms of how this plan will evolve over the next 10 years,” said Alviti.

Through the RhodeWorks program, there is money earmarked for safety. Traditionally, it goes toward engineering projects, like the wrong-way driver detection system that was recently installed on local roadways. Now, we’ve learned about 75 percent of that money is being shifted to education, social programs, and legislation.

Alviti said all of that spending will be tracked and monitored for results.

“Each will have a cumulative effect on people making those decisions until everybody is making the right decision,” he explained. “We’re putting into place performance measures so that we can continually, every year, measure the performance and effect of the various components that we’re implementing.”

The director said he even finds negative comments about the new system to be a win, because people are talking about a topic that has gone unaddressed for too long.

“Because they deal with the reality that that decision that you’re making when you get in a car or you get in a vehicle and you drive impaired will affect the lives of many, many other people,” said Alviti.

You can expect to see new messages around holidays and times of the year when impaired driving typically increases. The next one starts this coming weekend, as many fans will be cheering on the Patriots in Super Bowl LI.