More evidence of how politicized COVID-19 immunizations have become: A prominent vaccine critic is blasting the Colorado Department of Transportation over a highway sign that mentions the shots — even though the message the agency intended to convey was about the importance of using seat belts, and not an inoculation pitch.
Larry Cappetto is a videographer based in Grand Junction, the largest community in Mesa County, which has the highest number of confirmed Delta variant cases in the state. Earlier this year, he put together a civil-disobedience-celebrating mini-documentary about mask-free shopping at a time when the state's facial-covering order was still in effect for public places.
On July 18, Cappetto posted a short video on the God's Underground YouTube channel showing a highway sign on eastbound Interstate 70 outside of Grand Junction that read, "YOU JUST GOT THE VACCINE: BUCKLE UP." His introduction to the clip: "I am offended by this road sign. Per CDOT guidelines, the purpose of these Variable Message Sign (VMS) messages is to inform and direct motorists of variable situations in a consistent and orderly manner. The messages are for the purpose of traffic control, management and timely traveler information. I will be calling CDOT again to voice my concern."
Shortly thereafter, Cappetto reached out to the state transportation department via email, and on July 19, he received a reply from Jennifer Uebelher, the transportation commission liaison for the department's Office of Policy and Government Relations. "I am sorry that this message is offensive to you," she wrote. "I have forwarded your email to the Director of Maintenance and Operations for further review. He is looking into the situation and provided this brief summary of how these signs are to be used."
Here's the summary:
In general, public service announcements (PSA) may be displayed on a limited and short-term basis (which is where this falls into). The VMS should be used sparingly for the PSA so that the primary purpose and long-term effectiveness of these signs will not be degraded. The PSA shall not be displayed in urban areas during the peak travel periods. Special event signing, notification of future roadway construction, and displaying messages for other states are all forms of public service announcements and have been adequately addressed in previous sections. However, there are additional categories of PSA messages appropriate for VMS use, as described below. Most PSA messages will fall into one of these categories, though there may be others such as non-typical truckload restrictions, homeland security information pertinent to travel, natural disaster notification, and evacuation route information that would be appropriate as a PSA. Under no circumstances shall the VMS be used for advertising of any kind.
In his response, Cappetto contended that the sign "is going far beyond an innocent PSA. This is propaganda, it is offensive and it will be stopped!! Take a good look at yourselves. You are distracting drivers with your nonsensical signs. The message behind the message is that everyone is taking this untested, unapproved shot. Well, there are many of us who are NOT taking it and we will not be coerced by the state to do so. If you cannot see that this message sign is offensive to us who are not taking this shot, then you need to find another job.... Who wrote this message and what were their thoughts behind it? We have a right to know."
According to CDOT spokesman Sam Cole, the sign is part of the department's "Reasons" campaign designed to promote seat belt use. The text pairs items or events that may be distracting drivers with a two-word exhortation to "Buckle Up." Here are see sixteen examples, including the one mentioning vaccine:
Reason #75: You scored Red Rocks tickets.
Reason #135: Baseball is back.
Reason #158: That vacation is so close.
Reason #10: Hospital bills are expensive.
Reason #96: You finally got your ex to stop texting you.
Reason #16: You *just* got the vaccine.
Reason #155: You finally grew out of your awkward years.
Reason #44: You have that thing next Tuesday.
Reason #3: Nurses are busy enough.
Reason #84: You finally paid off your student loans.
Reason #7: Your dog would miss you.
Reason #96: You're not out of dad jokes yet.
Reason #21: "Be right back" shouldn't be your last words.
Reason #11: A windshield is something nobody should go through.
Reason #29: Human projectiles rarely live to tell their story.
Reason #8: You're halfway through season 3 of your new favorite show.
Cole hasn't heard of any complaints about the vaccine sign beyond Cappetto's. Still, he doesn't dismiss the possibility that others were rankled. "If one person had that reaction, perhaps somebody else might have had that reaction, too," he acknowledges, then adds, "I really want to make sure that the message comes through about buckling up. That's the main message, not the importance of getting vaccinated."
Matt Inzeo, Cole's CDOT communications colleague, notes, "Consistent with our public-health counterparts and our other safety messages, CDOT is encouraging drivers to buckle up, and we have strongly encouraged our employees to get vaccinated."
These explanations don't placate Cappetto. "I am a very defensive driver and take traffic safety very seriously," he stresses. "Back when I worked in law enforcement here in Mesa County, I graduated number one from the police academy in defensive driving. I’ve seen the results too often of poor driving habits."
He's certainly not against buckling up. "Seatbelts save lives!" he declares. "But enough of the rhetoric and propaganda. Borrowing a quote from a popular John Mayer song, 'Say what you need to say.'"
Cappetto thinks the sign failed in its goal. "I didn't even get to the seatbelt part," he explains. "My first thought was, 'I ain't just got the shot.'"
Cappetta says he asked several friends, family members, local business owners and others for their takes on the sign and RTD's explanation, and summarizes their views with this: "We respectfully disagree with CDOT’s response. CDOT is about safe transportation, not vaccines. There is no reason for CDOT to jump in the middle of this. Surely, there are better things CDOT can think of to put on warning highway signs. The state highway notification signs should not be used to promote propaganda. The state has spent enough taxpayers dollars pushing their agenda. Obviously, if we wanted the vaccine, we would have gotten it by now. Road signage should not be used to promote any political agenda."
He concludes with a quote from Thomas Jefferson: "There is no justification for taking away individuals' freedom in the guise of public safety."
Talk about a sign of the times.
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