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Pay attention!

State transportation officials in Southern Oregon are test-driving a new way to combat distracted driving — get motorists to glance at an electronic message telling them to pay attention.

What may sound like a textbook study in irony is actually a way for Oregon Department of Transportation officials to wrestle themselves away from the monotonous "don't text and drive" mantra and put a little oomph behind their lifesaving message.

Messages like "Don't Drive Intexticated" and "Eyes on the Road, Hands on the Wheel" will pop up on the same electronic signs on Interstate 5 in Jackson and Douglas counties that warn motorists about wrecks ahead or bad weather.

They started Friday at the six overhead signs, and new messages will pop up each Friday through April, giving traffic officials a chance to gauge which are most effective while ensuring they don't add to the distraction.

"It's a way to put a bug in your ear and make you think about it," says ODOT spokesman Jared Castle in Roseburg.

"We're not looking to be shocking, but (the messages) are a way to be more creative," Castle said. "We're trying to break through that noise."

The idea is to do to distracted driving today what education and social paradigms did to drunken driving decades ago, Castle said. 

"Right now it's very acceptable to use your phone while driving," Castle said. "We have to get past that ... ."

Distracted driving includes using a phone, texting or eating, and experts say it plays a major role in driving dilemmas that saw Oregon rack up 495 deaths on Oregon roads — a 60 percent increase from 2013 and the highest since 2003, ODOT statistics show.

Research by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration shows human decision-making causes 94 percent of all crashes. 

Other state DOT's in the West and Midwest have tried the same approach; many of the messages motorists will see are borrowed from those states, Castle said.

I-5 signs with the messages are on southbound lanes near Milepost 13, northbound lanes at Milepost 25 near Phoenix, southbound lanes near Milepost 31, northbound lanes at Milepost 64 near Hugo, southbound lanes at Milepost 83 and southbound lanes at Milepost 170.

Other messages displayed Friday included "Stay Alive on I-5, Don't Text & Drive" and "Exit to Text It."

Think you can do better? Make up your own slogan using up to three lines with 18 characters per line and send it to Castle at jared.b.castle@odot.state.or.us.

Castle also invites members of the public to weigh in on the messages via email and social media.

This pilot project will test its effectiveness in rural areas, Castle said. A similar pilot project will be done later in the Portland area, he said.

"We're trying to do something different to break through that wall and make people think they have the capacity not to use these devices while driving," Castle said.

— Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@mailtfribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.

Interstate 5 motorists are greeted with a sign at milepost 25 south of Medford encouraging them to avoid distractions such as texting and eating while driving. [Mail Tribune / Denise Baratta]