(ORDO NEWS) — US researchers analyzed the distraction effect associated with death numbers displayed on road signs. They managed to find out that it increases the death rate in road accidents. However, a detailed analysis of all types of accidents has yet to be carried out.
Every year, 1.35 million people die in road traffic crashes worldwide. Road services are trying to reduce deaths and injuries – including by encouraging safer driving.
Digital signage is considered to be a highly efficient device to improve road safety. It is assumed that the transmission of messages directly to the driver while driving prevents dangerous behavior on the roads.
However, so far no one has carried out a rigorous assessment of the impact of such messages on traffic safety and its correlation with the accident rate. Hall and Madsen’s study shows that, contrary to expectations, displaying crash fatalities on dynamic signs increases the number of crashes further down the road.
The Texas Department of Transportation began posting warnings on dynamic signs for one week a month in 2012. Such a network throughout the state is 900 pieces.
Messages consisted of a safety slogan (for example, “Drunk? Don’t drive”) and a year’s cumulative number of fatal crashes (for example, “XXX 2012 Texas road traffic deaths”).
The signs displayed similar messages when they were not used to communicate other traffic-related information such as incidents, roadworks, or special events. No messages were shown for the rest of the month.
Hall and Madsen compared crashes down the road following dynamic signs across the state during periods when safety messages with fatality rates were displayed and when they were not.
To rule out other factors that could influence the results, the authors compared crash data on the same sections of roadway before the start of the fatality reporting campaign and on sections of the roadway further down the path (after the sign).
They concluded that reports of crash fatalities resulted in a 1.35% increase in crashes up to 10 kilometers further down the road.
The authors of the study argue that it is not the emotions that cause such warnings, but the filling of the driver’s RAM with unnecessary specific information.
These results contradict other studies showing that such messages are ineffective largely due to driver bias and “road optimism”, which is an overestimation of one’s driving skills and the ability to avoid death.
However, since the effect of reporting road deaths was greater in urban areas, the problem may be over-emphasis or some cognitive overload.
Drivers experience greater baseline cognitive load on multi-lane urban freeways compared to rural highways. Based on this, the additional cognitive load from reports of deaths may be enough to make some people stop paying attention to the road.
Such “attention overload” effects have been demonstrated in driving simulations, natural driving studies, and closed course evaluations. The work on the effect of emotional distraction on the driving task is limited, but there are several that support this hypothesis.
Another plausible hypothesis for Hall and Madsen’s findings is that the overall design of road safety messages, including fatality rates, cumulatively contributes to information overload, which has an adverse effect on driver behavior.
Messages should be limited in length and formatted so that motorists can quickly read and process the information correctly within the limited viewing time.
The accident data presented by Hall and Madsen clearly demonstrates the increase in mortality associated with displaying such statistics. However, additional analysis of accident types and documented causal factors in crash reports will help to better establish causal relationships.
For example, the authors treated all crash types as equal and separated only single-vehicle crashes from those involving multiple vehicles.
As a more detailed analysis, a separation of different types of accidents can be imagined, such as collisions from behind as a result of not reacting quickly enough to the deceleration of a car in front. Studying the structure of specific accident configurations will help to find correct explanations for the distraction effect proposed by scientists.
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