When it comes to public safety, the government is supposed to try its best to minimize dangers, not increase them– well, this is certainly not one of those instances. In an ironic, yet sensible study by the University of Minnesota, researchers discovered that messages displaying highway fatality stats actually increased the likelihood of motor vehicle crashes.
The study was conducted on Texas highways that featured the signs which can be seen in 27 other states affecting 100 million drivers total. The researchers’ findings show the number of vehicle crashes increased, on average, by 4.5% in the 6.2 miles following a fatality-statistic message.
The dynamic light-up signs, meant to discourage speeding and reckless driving, have had the opposite effect on road safety. But how can this be? Researchers point to human’s limited attention spans and cognition.
“Driving on a busy highway [and] having to navigate lane changes is more cognitively demanding than driving down a straight stretch of empty highway,” said U of M Carlson School of Management Assistant Professor Joshua Madsen. “People have limited attention. When a driver’s cognitive load is already maxed out, adding on an attention-grabbing, sobering reminder of highway deaths [can] become a dangerous distraction.”
The study was conducted on Texas highways from August 2012 to December 2017. During this time period, the Texas Department of Transportation displayed fatality messages on 880 signs one week every month as part of a public safety campaign. Madsen discovered that crashes on the highways increased during these time periods as opposed to the 2.5 years prior to the campaigns.
The numbers certainly speak for themselves. The study suggests that fatality messages alone cause an additional 2,600 crashes and 16 deaths per year. All together that is a whopping annual cost of $377 million each year. Simply put, transportation departments can save money and lives by simply switching the signs off.
“We did not start this project thinking these signs hurt, we thought they helped,” said Jonathan Hall, an economics professor at the University of Toronto and co-author of the study. “I think a reasonable takeaway would be that state departments of transportation should test their messages and track which of these messages are too distracting and which are helpful.”
Interestingly enough, the study also found that crashes decreased when the signs displayed lower fatality figures. This suggests that larger figures are more distracting to drivers. Simpler, easier-to-read statistics and signage also had a positive effect on lowering crashes as well. Another peculiar observation was that the signs increased multiple-vehicle crashes and not single-vehicle crashes. This supports the fact that drivers made smaller mistakes, like drifting out of lanes and getting distracted, rather than driving completely off the road.
Despite the signs being a bust, car accidents remain a major issue in the US. In 2020, the Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported nearly 39,000 deaths in traffic accidents. Though statistics raise public awareness on issues, the highway is probably the last place where folks need to be distracted by numbers and messages. Madsen also suggested displaying statistics at frequent stops and not in high-speed zones.
“Distracted driving is dangerous driving,” said Madsen. “Perhaps these campaigns can be reimagined to reach drivers in a safer way, such as when they are stopped at an intersection so that their attention while driving remains focused on the roads.”
Veronica Beyer, director of media relations at the Texas Department of Transportation, balked at the study saying “In relation to this particular study, there are too many unknowns to draw any firm conclusions.”
“The real issues around traffic fatalities in Texas are speed, distracted driving, impaired driving, and people not wearing seat belts,” Beyer added. Despite the ambivalence, the Texas Department of Transportation stopped displaying fatality figures in March 2021.
Fatality figures or not, there is one thing that the study certainly confirmed: distracted driving is dangerous driving. If you’re one of the 100 million American drivers affected by these signs, what do you think of their effectiveness, and better yet, have you ever found yourself distracted by them?