Highway Safety Warnings Appear to Backfire

Study suggests they're so distracting they actually cause more accidents
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted Apr 23, 2022 2:55 PM CDT
Highway Safety Messages May Have Opposite Effect
   (Getty/Marcos Assis)

In Texas and elsewhere, electronic signs give motorists a running death toll from traffic accidents as a way to push safety. But a new study suggests that one easy way to improve road safety is to get rid of those signs. The research published in Science concludes that the messages are so distracting they result in an uptick of accidents soon after drivers see them, reports the Wall Street Journal. The study focused on Texas, where researchers documented what Ars Technica describes as a small but "statistically significant" rise in accidents—2.7% in the first 0.6 miles after such a sign, and 1.8% up to 6 miles down the road. But those numbers can add up.

"Back-of-the-envelope calculations suggest that this campaign causes an additional 2,600 crashes and 16 fatalities per year in Texas alone, with a social cost of $377 million per year," write the researchers in the study. Co-author Jonathan Hall of the University of Toronto tells the Journal that researchers went into the study thinking the signs helped. But under "conclusions" in their study, this is the initial one: "First, and most directly, fatality message campaigns increase the number of crashes, so ceasing these campaigns is a low-cost way to improve traffic safety."

Hall and his team theorize that such signs—particularly those with high death tolls— increase the "cognitive load" on drivers, which can lead to errors such as coming up too closely on the car in front of them or drifting from their lane. A Texas official, however, does not sound sold on the conclusions. "In relation to this particular study, there are too many unknowns to draw any firm conclusions," says Veronica Beyer, director of media relations at the Texas Department of Transportation. "The real issues around traffic fatalities in Texas are speed, distracted driving, impaired driving, and people not wearing seat belts." (More road safety stories.)

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