Amy from Morrison writes, “What is driving you crazy? The traffic on westbound C-470 between Kipling & Santa Fe that is caused by the electronic sign. When it does not note information of an emergent nature, it is distracting and dangerous. These message boards seem to be on more than they need to be.”
Those over the highway electronic signs are called Variable Message Signs (VMS). The messages they display are set by CDOT workers in the Transportation Systems Management & Operations center in Golden. Most often they read, “watch for rocks on road” or “caution watch for wildlife on road”. They can also alert of fire restrictions, lane closures or travel times. Most recently they have been used to remind drivers of the move over law and to show the running tab of how many traffic deaths have occurred on Colorado roads to date.
The VMS you are talking about hangs over the eastbound lanes of C-470 just past the large Chatfield Reservoir spillway. That specific one is used in similar ways as others around the state, however, recently it has been used to warn drivers of upcoming construction activities and lane closures farther east in the C-470 expansion project.
Stacia Sellers, CDOT Region 1 Communications Specialist told me they know that messages on the overhead signs can cause traffic jams when drivers look up to read the message. “We are aware of the ‘Literacy Jamming’ that occurs with that particular sign (although there often is congestion there even when the sign is blank) and we strive to use the sign only when it's an important message to help alleviate the issue.”
But 'literacy jamming' as it is called isn't the only reason that traffic backs up on this section of eastbound C-470 past Wadsworth. Part of the problem is the traffic merging onto the highway from Wadsworth. The other problem is the uphill climb. "It is unknown why that one location ties up traffic so much, it is likely due to the elevation of the roadway in relation to where the sign is. There are plans to move that sign in the future when budget allows," Sellers said.
The other place I know of that is notorious for ‘literacy Jamming’ is at the VMS that hangs over the southbound side of I-225 just south of Mississippi Ave.
Another viewer, John from Fort Collins, had a similar complaint about messages on the sign board staying up too long. John writes, “If someone was watching the messages at the DOT and changing them, it would be fine. But they just post a warning, and leave it up there. If the DOT put the message up, surely they can take it down if there isn’t a problem, you would think, right? That message board created a far worse traffic jam than whatever the original problem was, if there even was one. You might look into the circumstances of when they put a message up, and if someone is watching that it comes down in a timely manner after the hazard has cleared.”
In the future, CDOT hopes never to use those signs again. It would be part of their ‘smart road’ traffic system that would deliver messages right to your car or smart phone while you are driving in the warning area. Until that day which feels as far off as flying cars, you can check to see if there is a message on that sign before you leave the house by looking on CDOT’s COTRIP web page. On the left side you will see under the selection for cameras a box with three dots. Make sure that is on and you will see all the VMS across the state and read the messages on them in real time. You can also see if it is causing a traffic jam by looking at the real time traffic flow data in that same area. While I can’t stop ‘Literacy Jamming’, I can help you know it’s happening before you get there.
Denver7 traffic anchor Jayson Luber says he has been covering Denver-metro traffic since Ben-Hur was driving a chariot. (We believe the actual number is over 20 years.) He's obsessed with letting viewers know what's happening on their drive and the best way to avoid the problems that spring up. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter or listen to his Driving You Crazy podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play, and Podbean.