The Signs Are There: NMA E-Newsletter #700

How ironic is it that, for all the special-interest handwringing about speed being the primary cause of traffic fatalities, distractions on the road draw far less attention as a root cause of safety issues?

That road users other than drivers suffer distractions that can have dangerous consequences is a topic for another time. Let’s focus on the multitude of distractions that drivers face every day behind the wheel. Some are self-inflicted—fiddling with car entertainment or environmental controls, talking on a mobile phone, punching in navigation information, paying too much heed to boisterous passengers—and some are a result of the external built environment that vies for the attention of drivers at every literal turn.

Two professors, Joshua Madsen of the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management, and Jonathan Hall at the University of Toronto, recently released a study that helps quantify the effect of those outside distractions.

Their research concentrated on a Texas highway project designed to warn drivers about pending danger by displaying on an electronic roadside sign the number of traffic deaths that occurred the year before. Madsen and Hall found that accidents increased significantly in the six miles of road immediately after the signage. The pair estimates that the digital displays played a direct factor in creating 2,600 more accidents, 16 deaths, and $377 million in associated costs over the course of a year.

The Texas signs displayed the fatality count one week each month, making the researchers’ task an easy one to isolate accident statistics with and without the signs in operation. They collected several years’ worth of data from before the signs were present and another several years of information when the on-again, off-again displays were in operation.

Madsen noted that when he and Hall shared the study results with several state departments of transportation, some of the responses were polite but dismissive. He claimed one state wrote back, “This is an interesting study, thank you for the feedback, but we think [our program] is going to help in the long term.” Even the Texas DOT, home base for the study’s data collection, issued a statement that, in part, said, “In relation to this particular study, there are too many unknowns to draw any firm conclusions.” The state has since acknowledged, without citing the Madsen/Hall study, that it stopped displaying traffic fatality statistics on roadside signs.

Who would have thought that putting up warning signs along a busy highway that draw driver attention away from the road would have adverse safety effects? It seems the primary purpose of the sign program was to influence driver behavior. That goal was met, but not exactly as intended.

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