Crime

Police Say This Profane Prank in Phoenix Wasn’t Such a Bright Idea

This illuminated message board, which should have warned that the I-17 frontage road was closed ahead, displayed this vulgar message on Tuesday night in North Phoenix.
This illuminated message board, which should have warned that the I-17 frontage road was closed ahead, displayed this vulgar message on Tuesday night in North Phoenix. Reddit

Motorists zooming past construction sites at night are likely familiar with the coppery colored glow of halogen bulbs illuminating traffic rules such as "BUCKLE UP" or "LANE CLOSED AHEAD."

Such traffic signs do not typically display vulgar sexual commands to Valley residents during their daily commutes. But this week was not a typical one.


A $30 million roadwork project in North Phoenix was briefly derailed Tuesday night after pranksters hijacked the controls of an electronic message board near Interstate-17 and Thunderbird Road.


The flashing sign and its messages are overseen by the project’s prime contractor, North Dakota-based Fisher Sand and Gravel Co., which has its secondary headquarters in Tempe.


Backlit message boards will remain at the site until next year as workers install a drainage system between Greenway Road and Dunlap Avenue.


The 3,000-pound sign made by Colorado-based Wanco Inc. displays three lines of text with up to eight characters on each line.


That was just enough space for pranksters to display the lewd haiku, “SUCK MY ASSHOLE,” to motorists driving past a stretch of I-17 that sees more than 100,000 vehicles every day.


While a moment of levity for stressed-out drivers may seem innocent, it is still illegal.


Whoever is responsible could be charged with a misdemeanor under an Arizona law that makes it illegal to “alter, deface, injure, knock down, or remove an official traffic control device.”


If Phoenix police track down the culprit, that person could face six months in jail and a $2,500 fine. A judge could also impose up to three years of probation.


It’s the same punishment as a DUI conviction.


“We haven’t had this happen very often,” Phoenix Police Sergeant Phil Krynsky said. “We are looking into it.”


According to Krynsky, the suspect could also be charged with "criminal damage" or worse — a computer hacking crime, which could be a felony. 


The police department could not immediately determine if it had received any formal reports about the mishap.


“We haven't yet heard of a decision regarding contact with police,” Arizona Department of Transportation spokesperson Doug Nintzel said.


The text on the sign was not corrected until late into the night, Nintzel added.


Motorists pulling off the interstate to fill up their gas tanks or grab a late dinner at the Taco Bell or Whataburger on Thunderbird Road were confronted with the profane message that was captured on a TikTok video and later shared on Reddit.

       


Whoever the merry prankster was had the finesse needed to bypass the traffic signal’s onboard security system.


According to Wanco, “multi-level password protection limits access to control software” and the control box locks “to prevent unauthorized access.”


That didn’t hinder the mystery lawbreaker.


Fisher Sand and Gravel said it is “not in a position to speculate” if one of its own employees manipulated the message board.


The Phoenix Police Department could launch its own investigation to answer such a query. 


Electronic message board technology is expensive, but security measures are included in the high price tag, manufacturers claim.


New LED message signs cost roughly $300,000, according to ADOT.


The signs provide “a brighter, clearer light, so it’s easier to see the signs and read the messages,” said Chuck Hill, who oversees lighting for ADOT. 


In this case, however, such a traffic sign message may prompt uncomfortable passenger conversations, especially if children are in the car. 


There are no security cameras around the Thunderbird Road underpass where the sign sits. The potential lack of video proof is likely to make a police department investigation more difficult.


According to the transportation department, “it is rare” for people to meddle with traffic signs on the roadside, Nintzel said.


But hacking any department of transportation signs to display vulgar messages is more common than at first blush. 


Across several states, from North Carolina to Pennsylvania and even in Maryland traffic sign shenanigans have popped up in the past four years, according to the Washington Post, USA Today, and countless local media outlets.


“This serves as another reminder for those who operate such portable signs to take precautions,” Nintzel said. “While incidents for our projects have been rare, they can happen.”

In the meantime, stay classy Phoenix. 

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Elias Weiss is a staff writer at the Phoenix New Times. A native of Charlotte, North Carolina, he reported first for the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and was editor of the Chatham Star-Tribune in Southern Virginia, where he covered politics and law. In 2020, the Virginia Press Association awarded him first place in the categories of Government Writing and Breaking News Writing for non-daily newspapers statewide.
Contact: Elias Weiss