Study Reveals an Unexpected Side Effect of Traffic Safety Messages


According to a recent study, eye-catching signage that inform drivers of highway fatality might backfire in unforeseen ways.

When automobiles speed past crash data in Texas, such as '1669 deaths on Texas roads this year,' researchers discovered that drivers are 4.5 percent more likely to be involved in a crash in the following 10 kilometers (6.21 miles).

That accident rate may result in 2,600 collisions and 16 fatalities in Texas alone per year. If the similar rate applies across the country, it's feasible that road fatality reminders are triggering 17,000 automobile accidents each year in the United States.

The authors conclude, "Our analysis demonstrates that prominent, general, in-your-face safety messages presented to drivers swamp out more serious safety issues."

While road safety signs may appear to be helpful or harmless, there's a potential they're really diverting drivers in ways that are more of a catastrophe than a deterrent.

Given that 28 states have undertaken comparable policies, this is a big problem.

The state of Texas serves as a fantastic case study since it displays fatality notices on the roadway once a week, once a month. Researchers were able to track the impact of these communications on an hourly, daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly basis as a result of this.

Researchers were astonished to see an immediate detrimental impact when comparing automobile collisions before and after the state's safety program began. The campaign appeared to be accomplishing the exact opposite of its goals.

When the number of fatalities increased during election weeks, so did the number of automobile accidents. The effect is similar to increasing the speed limit by 3 to 5 mph (4.8 to 8 km/h) or eliminating highway troopers by up to 14%.

Despite their initial astonishment, the study's authors have discovered a method to explain the findings.

They argue that "serious" themes such as traffic deaths are too "direct." Instead of increasing a driver's alertness, they only increase their distraction.

Road signs can lead drivers to neglect other important factors, such as knowing where other cars are around them, by snatching part of their limited focus and converting it into fear over death.

The 'distraction' argument is further reinforced by the fact that on Texas highways that were more complicated, such as those with more traffic or more lanes and turn-offs, there was a greater rise in automobile collisions caused by fatality signs.

Another important explanation is anxiety. According to the Texas study, as the number of real car crash deaths flashed on a route climbed, so did the likelihood of a vehicle collision occurring in the next 10 kilometers.

This implies that the more stunning the warning, the more probable it is that someone will focus on the risk rather than the road. When the yearly mortality data resume in February, for example, the rate of automobile collisions following the sign might drop by as much as 11% from the previous month, thus lowering crashes by a few percent.

High anxiety levels have also been proven to affect our performance on a task by causing us to overthink, which can override our reflexes, according to previous psychological studies. However, for some reason, that disadvantage was overlooked when road safety initiatives were originally implemented.

While prior lab studies have demonstrated that fatality notifications can affect a driver's cognitive burden, real-world data is few. However, car simulations show that billboards are distracting to drivers in general.

"It is critical to quantify an intervention's effect, even for modest initiatives," the authors of the Texas study advise, "since good intentions do not always indicate excellent outcomes."

In a related context, traffic control specialist Gerald Ullman and psychologist Susan Chrysler point out that the US Federal Highway Administration began restricting the use of death figures on the road in 2021, in response to the new results.

The evidence from Texas backs up that judgment.

According to Ullman and Chrysler, "the collision statistics given... convincingly illustrate a safety impact of presenting death figures on [dynamic message signs]."

"The findings given in the research, however, do not adequately define the mechanism underlying this safety impact. Additional research on incident types and reported cause elements in crash reports might provide more information."

The study serves as a warning that even if a public health strategy appears to be beneficial, it must be put to the test.

The study was published in Science.