Consider a scenario where you’re cruising on the highway and encounter an electronic sign displaying, “79 traffic fatalities this year.” Would seeing this message decrease your likelihood of being involved in an accident? Contrary to what one might expect, recent scientific research suggests the opposite effect.
A study published in the prestigious journal Science, based on seven years of data from 880 electronic highway signs, reveals a startling finding. During weeks when these signs displayed death tolls as part of a safety campaign, accidents within a three-mile radius increased by 1.52% compared to other weeks. This effect is akin to the impact of increasing speed limits by four miles per hour or reducing highway patrol presence by 10%. The study estimates the societal cost of these messages at around $377 million annually, contributing to approximately 2,600 additional crashes and 16 fatalities.
The primary culprit behind this increase is distracted driving. These messages’ direct and stark nature captures drivers’ attention, inadvertently diverting their focus from the road. This phenomenon is like the risks associated with texting while driving.
Further supporting this conclusion, the study observed a correlation between higher reported death tolls and an increase in accidents. Interestingly, the effect of these messages diminished by 11% from January to February, coinciding with the annual reset of the death count. The study also noted a more pronounced increase in accidents on complex road segments, where driver concentration is more crucial.
This research aligns with other studies demonstrating heightened anxiety can impair driving ability. For instance, one experiment showed displaying fatality messages to drivers in a controlled setting increased their cognitive load, leading to more distracted driving.
These findings challenge the conventional wisdom underpinning the implementation of these fatality message campaigns. Rather than relying on empirical evidence, the decision to launch these campaigns was based more on intuitive assumptions about their effectiveness. This misstep resulted in what scholars term a “boomerang effect,” where an intervention produces the opposite of its intended outcome.
Boomerang effects are not uncommon in public safety campaigns. For example, the National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign, funded by the US Congress from 1998 to 2004, inadvertently led to an increase in marijuana use among youths. The campaign, which was designed to discourage drug use, gave youths the impression marijuana use was widespread among their peers, thereby increasing their likelihood of using the drug.
Corporate campaigns can also suffer from boomerang effects. Apple’s “Apple at Work” campaign, which promoted remote work, coincided with the company’s own policy requiring employees to return to the office. This contradiction led to significant employee dissatisfaction, highlighting the campaign’s unintended negative impact.
These examples underscore the importance of grounding public messaging campaigns in cognitive and behavioral science. Authorities and policymakers should collaborate with experts in these fields to design and test interventions on a small scale before widespread implementation. While nudges and messaging campaigns can be effective, their success depends on careful planning, testing, and adaptation based on empirical evidence, rather than assumptions or intuition.
In Maryland, a figure dressed in white, known as Signal Woman, has been seen offering safety advice to pedestrians and drivers. She might caution pedestrians against texting while crossing the street or remind drivers of the importance of yielding to pedestrians. This character, backed by the Maryland Highway Safety Office, has her own website and social media presence, promoting the message “Look Alive.”
However, the effectiveness of Signal Woman in enhancing road safety in Maryland remains unproven. A 2020 assessment by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration rated pedestrian safety education, the kind Signal Women’s champions, with a low one-star rating out of five, indicating minimal or no substantial evaluation evidence of its effectiveness.
Signal Woman embodies a long-standing approach in American traffic safety, often including various media and social media outreach. For example, New York City is currently investing $4 million in a campaign to deter speeding, featuring graphic advertisements. Similarly, the Georgia Governor’s Office of Highway Safety has engaged in creative initiatives like a pedestrian fashion show and a slogan competition to promote road safety.
Despite the significant funds allocated annually by Congress for traffic education and awareness, the impact of these efforts on actual road safety remains questionable. The challenge is that many of these campaigns reiterate well-known messages or rely on humor or fear tactics, which generally do not lead to behavioral change. Moreover, they often place the responsibility for safety on individuals, diverting attention from more systemic solutions.
Historically, American road safety education has had some successes, such as the widespread adoption of child car seats in the 1970s and 1980s, and the increase in seat belt usage following campaigns like “Click It or Ticket.” However, these successes often involved providing new information or lowering barriers to action, unlike many current campaigns that simply repeat familiar messages.
The National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine’s Transportation Research Board has criticized the assumption that mere awareness will lead to behavior change. Similarly, NHTSA’s “Countermeasures That Work” guide has consistently rated many educational approaches, such as those aimed at reducing distracted driving or improving pedestrian safety, with the lowest effectiveness rating.
Despite the evidence, there is a reluctance to shift away from traditional education campaigns to more effective strategies. This inertia is partly due to biases, resistance to change, and political influences. For instance, there is a tendency to rely on personal judgment over research-based evidence in designing these campaigns.
The need for a shift in focus is evident, especially considering the recent rise in traffic fatalities. More effective strategies might include designing roads to naturally reduce speed, mandating speed governors, or increasing the use of speed cameras, which have shown higher effectiveness in reducing accidents.
While education campaigns have been a staple of road safety efforts, their actual impact on improving safety is increasingly being questioned. A reevaluation of these strategies, focusing more on systemic changes and evidence-based interventions, appears necessary to address the growing concerns over road safety effectively.
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