“Dad jokes” aim to save lives in Oviedo

“The average cost of a DUI is $15K. That’s a lot of labor!”

Oviedo Police Department’s Sgt. Matthew DePanicis hopes that this light-hearted message (with very serious undertones) helped local drivers think twice before driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol this past Labor Day weekend.

For the past five years, DePanicis has been in charge of the messages that light up the mobile boards on Oviedo’s roadsides. During the first year, he used the national safe-driving slogans: “Click it or ticket”; “Drive sober or get pulled over.”

But four years ago he began to worry that seeing the same messages over and over desensitized people to them to the point where they no longer paid attention.

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“I thought to myself, ‘There’s gotta be another way to get the message across while keeping drivers engaged,’” he said.

It worked for Madison Decker, a 19-year-old lifelong Oviedoan who passes the road sign on Mitchell Hammock Road when she leaves work at the BurgerFi on the corner of Mitchell Hammock Road and State Road 434.

“It’s fun to see because I always fall for dad jokes and puns. No matter what it is, it’s always something funny,” she said, adding that the deeper safety message resonates more because of the humor. “It’s a good laugh but it’s also a way to get the message across.”

Now, DePanicis said, the messaging has taken on a life of its own. He tailors the signs to whatever holiday is around the corner, such as one he used during the winter holidays last year “Half-baked cookies may be OK, but half-baked drivers, not at all.”

“That was the one I got the most feedback from,” he said.

With growth comes traffic

Oviedo has realized explosive growth over the past two decades, increasing from a 26,000 population in 2000 to 33,000 in 2010 and to 40,000 in 2020, according to the University of Florida Bureau of Economic and Business Research. With a 39% population growth comes growing pains such as traffic congestion, which is a top complaint in the city.

“There’s no doubt that the No. 1 complaint in the city is traffic,” DePanicis said. “Historically, Oviedo has been a smaller town known for its chickens and having that small-town feel. I’ve been with the police department for 16 years and the city’s grown leaps and bounds. With that expansion comes more population and with more population comes more traffic and with more traffic comes more headaches.”

His objective is to have an impact on driver’s safety habits. In the past five years, the department has realized reductions in seat belt and DUI violations (although seat belt violations ticked back up last year). The number of crashes in the city fluctuates per year but DePanicis said the city has fewer traffic-related issues compared to surrounding agencies.

Image by Megan Stokes.

OPD Deputy Chief Michael Beavers said the messaging sometimes creates buzz on social media and that OPD Chief Dale Coleman gets a lot of positive feedback from the public.

“‘Drive sober, get pulled over’ is a good message too but his messages provide levity while still providing the important message,” Beavers said, comparing DePanicis’ messages to national campaigns. “When we do the ‘Click it or ticket”, he’ll add similar type messaging but add a little levity and change it up, as it were.”

DePanicis said public feedback encourages him.

“It lets me know that I’m on the right track, that I’m doing something good, that (the messages) are reaching people,” he said. “It’s actually making an impact and affecting some type of change.”

Dad jokes

DePanicis changes the messaging every two weeks and never reuses a message. He credits the years he spent interviewing people as an OPD detective for his creativity. That, and spending time with his 9- and 6-year-old kids. He said he often runs his ideas by his wife, which typically elicits an eye roll, but he uses it anyway.

“As I’m driving around, I’m always thinking about how I can reach people, grab their attention and give them a laugh,” he said.

Decker said she had no idea that the OPD was in charge of the messaging.

“I was always curious who was behind the message board. I assumed it was a dad,” she said.

Here are more of DePanicis’ favorite past messages:

  • “Don’t drive lit” (for the Fourth of July)
  • “Are you out of blinker fluid? If so, try using it.” (To increase drivers’ usage of their turn signals. He said drivers not using them is a big issue).
  • “That’s the temperature, not the speed limit.”
  • “Make the other drivers green with envy because of your driving habits.” (St. Patrick’s Day)
  • “Are you feeling lonely? Seatbelts give the best hugs.” (Valentine’s Day)

He said that after four years, it’s getting harder to create new material but that he’s up for the challenge.

“After doing it for as many years as I’ve been doing it, you start to run out of material. Now I gotta really dip into the well,” he said.

DePanicis said he welcomes suggested messaging from the public. Send your ideas to mdepanicis@cityofoviedo.net

Oviedo’s special

Beavers said he’s not aware of any other local agencies who create this type of messaging. Decker said that the messaging is fitting for a city like Oviedo, which exudes a unique charm.

Beavers said the level of detail DePanicis uses could be the secret sauce for the messages’ efficacy. He used the Labor Day message’s $15,000 mention as an example.

“Putting that dollar amount brings a different level of awareness. Honestly, that’s a minimum price compared to what would happen if you were in a crash and injure or kill someone. While there is levity there, there is a serious message there as well,” he said.

In addition to being in charge of the traffic sign messaging, DePanicis is a traffic sergeant, he’s a member of the SWAT team, he’s a recruiter, a trainer, an assistant team leader for SRT and he’s part of the traffic homicide unit. He said he loves the variety of duties he can perform working for a smaller department such as OPD.

“It makes you a more well-rounded officer. Unlike in Orlando where you’re going from call to call to call to call, you can focus on what you enjoy,” he said.

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