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What Is an AMBER Alert, and Why Does It Appear on Highway Signs?

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Amber alert highway sign road 911 abduction message history

This is what an AMBER Alert sign on the highway looks like,br/>Photo: Takuvia Flickr/cc

If you’ve been driving down the highway and seen a description of a vehicle flash across a digital screen above the road, it’s no doubt gotten your attention—and that’s on purpose. Those vehicle description broadcasts are part of the AMBER (“America’s Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response Plan”) Alert program. If you’re seeing one, it’s because a child has been abducted, and it’s important for you to keep eyes open for the described vehicle.

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Understanding and Responding to AMBER Alert Highway Notifications

The AMBER Alert was created 20 years ago in response to the kidnapping and murder of Texan 9-year-old Amber Hagerman. Based on a suggestion, a system for alerting the public through pre-existing broadcast channels was established. Since then, around 900 abducted children have been recovered. If the police receive a call concerning an abducted child and decide to use the AMBER Alert, law enforcement and other government agencies will be informed and a message sent to phones (via Wireless Emergency Alert) around the reported area. Notices are also shared on local televisions and radios.

Since the abductor is likely on the run in a vehicle, it’s important to get the notice out to where there’s the most traffic. Thus, if you’re on the highway, you’ll see the description of the abductor’s vehicle displayed on a digital sign (which would otherwise display weather or traffic information). The Federal Highway Administration instructs state Departments of Transportation to issue these notifications, so long as they’re not at the expense of public travel and transportation safety (congestion and distraction).

If you see the vehicle that matches the description, call 911 and provide as much information as you can on the vehicle’s location. It could make a life-or-death difference.

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Sources: National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, AMBER Alert