Some businesses along U.S. Highway 51 through Minocqua and adjacent communities received surprise visits Monday and Tuesday from Wisconsin Department of Transportation employees.
Another surprise was what the DOT employees wanted to talk to the managers or owners of those businesses – the length of time messages can be viewed on their message board signs adjacent to the highway.
The Lakeland Times confirmed at least two businesses along the highway that were visited by the DOT employees Monday and received a lecture on the state regulations regarding message boards.
Officials from both River Valley State Bank and the Minocqua Area Chamber of Commerce said two DOT employees visited their offices and told them their messages were changing too quickly on their message boards outside their buildings.
“We were told every message frame must pause and be visible for six seconds,” River Valley Branch Manager Lori Truemper said. “They said our messages were running too fast. They were changing about every one second, but we were told the messages must pause for six seconds to be viewed.”
Truemper said she was told the state has jurisdiction over regulations related to signs when they are along a state highway.
“I told them that I had slowed the message down to every three seconds at some time before but I received complaints from people that the message was running too slow. People didn’t have time to read the entire message when they were driving by.”
Kim Baltus, executive director of the Minocqua Area Chamber of Commerce, told a similar story.
“We were having a team meeting in the front of the building and two gentlemen approached us and said they were from the Department of Transportation and wanted to talk to us about our message board,” Baltus said. “They were very nice, very cordial and then they told us we needed slow down the messages on our sign. They said each message needs to be visible on the board for six seconds.”
Both said they were told a check would be conducted on a later date to see if they had changed the speed on their message boards.
Both also expressed surprise that it was the job of some state employees to travel and locate signs that have their messages flashing by “too quickly.”
When contacted, town of Minocqua officials said they knew nothing about the visits by the state employees.
Kelly Laabs, DOT operations supervisor for the North Central Region, said her department did have employees traveling along U.S. Highway 51 through Minocqua and they were talking to businesses about their signs.
“It has nothing to do with the upcoming reconstruction of that highway,” Laabs said. “It is a routine thing that we do around every two years or so. We have some of our employees drive the highway and assess the compliance of signs with state law.”
She said there are state regulations for the speed of messages on signs or message boards.
“They are in place to minimize driver distraction,” Laabs said. “We need to regulate what drivers see.”
Laabs said the visits are intended to coax sign owners to voluntarily comply with state rules. She said the locations where discussions were held with businesses will be examined again when the DOT makes a return to the area for another round of inspections.
Laabs said Wisconsin has specific regulations that her department must enforce regarding roadside message boards.
She cited Wisconsin State Statute 84.30(4)(bm): “Signs may contain multiple or variable messages, including messages on louvers that are rotated and messages formed solely by use of lights or other electronic or digital displays, that may be changed by any electronic process, subject to all of the following restrictions:
84.30(4)(bm)1. 1. Each change of message shall be accomplished in one second or less.
84.30(4)(bm)2. 2. Each message shall remain in a fixed position for at least 6 seconds.
84.30(4)(bm)3. 3. The use of traveling messages or segmented messages is prohibited.
84.30(4)(bm)4. 4. The department, by rule, may prohibit or establish restrictions on the illumination of messages to a degree of brightness that is greater than necessary for adequate visibility.
“Again it all comes to driver safety,” Laabs said. “We’re trying to provide as few distractions to drivers as possible along our highways.
Joe VanDeLaarschot may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.