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State to unveil winners in sign contest

An electronic highway sign seen on I-93 in Boston on May 9. Michael Dwyer/ AP

The following is what happens when you ask the citizens of Massachusetts to combine two of their favorite traditions: the Boston accent and complaining about other drivers.

“Calm yah livah!” “Pass on the left. No the other left.” “Check yah mirrah!” “This ain’t bumpahcahs. Give space.” “Put the phone down and drive yah losah.” “If you’re driving slowah, move ovah.” “Avoid the fingah, use yah blinkah.” “Bumpah to bumpah traffic. Bedda bang-a-uey.” “Slow down, guy, ya drivin’ wicked fast.” “Watch fah bikahs.” “Mind yah mannahs.” “That slow cah could be your grammah.” “Stop switching lanes. Yah not going a-knee fasta.”

These are all potential highway sign slogans that were rejected by the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, which opened up a can of worms when it asked the citizenry what they’d like to see on the roads.


It all started in May, during a Friday morning commute, as hundreds of thousands of drivers made their way down state highways on their way to work. For the sake of this story, let’s just pretend everyone was drinking Dunkin’ Donuts coffee.

As they drove, they passed an electronic highway sign, the kind that is so familiar as to become invisible. But this sign was different, and when they passed it, let’s just say that a few of them spit out that Dunkin’ Donuts coffee.

“Changing lanes?” the sign asked. “Use yah blinkah.”

By the time the morning was over, those words had become a viral phenomenon.

The “Blinkah” campaign became so popular on social media, with so many people offering their own suggestions, that the DOT wondered whether it could be more than a one-hit wonder and turned the sloganeering into a competition: the DOTSpeak Highway Safety Message Contest.

For months, people have been submitting potential signage, and the entries had something of a pattern. There were loads that implored people to be “smaht,” and several attempts to tie that in to the stupidity of using a “smaht phone” while driving. There were repeated attempts at telling people to save their rage for the Yankees, and lots of variations on the idea that tailgating should be reserved for Patriots games.


And, of course, “pahk” made several appearances, often accompanied by telling people what they should do if they want to text.

And throughout, there was a consistent lack of R’s and a “wicked” epidemic.

On Thursday, the state will officially announce the winners, in three categories — road rage, distracted driving, and seatbelt use. The first of those winners, in the road rage category, will go up on signs across the Commonwealth on Friday.

And the first winner is . . .

“Keep calm and drive on.”

For the sake of this story, let’s just say that no Dunkin’ Donuts coffee will be spit out at this one. But for this riff on the British wartime slogan — “Keep calm and carry on” — Patrick Casey of Allston will win a $50 gift certificate to a MassDOT service plaza, where they have Dunkies. (Winners also receive a $100 gift card to Gulf.)

That will be followed Labor Day weekend with “Put down the phone! Your LOLs and OMGs can wait,” from Justin Lovell of Whitman, the winner of the distracted driving category.

On Columbus Day weekend, leaf-peepers will be greeted with the only one of the winners that is, like the original, written in the Boston dialect: “Make yah Ma proud, wear yah seatbelt.” That one was a group effort from the Parent’s Supervised Driving Program team of Safe Roads Alliance.


Considering the entries, nearly 500 in all, the winners are a tad on the vanilla side.

“Horribly tame,” according to M.J. Connolly, a professor of linguistics at Boston College who is considered an expert on the Boston dialect.

“The one dialect one is too long and lacks rhythm — rhythm serves as an important part of the local usage, just like timing in a good punch line.”

But the submissions are so rich that Connolly said he’d consider turning a student loose on it as a corpus for analysis.

The contest asked for submissions in only three categories, and had guidelines so the slogan could fit on their electronic signs — it had to be a two-panel message, with three lines per panel, and eight characters per line — but many riffed and broke the rules.

In fact, many of the more clever submissions fit a deadly category that was not part of the contest: drunk driving.

“Drive sobah or have a T party.” “Stay soba and you won’t get pulled ovah.” “No boozin’ and cruizin.” And “Don’t drink bee-yah ’til you’re the-yah.”

Billy Baker can be reached at billybaker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @billy_baker.