Displaying road fatality totals on digital road signs can be deadly


(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Road sign on I-15, May 1, 2020. New study indicates that email signs listing the number of road fatalities may cause more accidents in some areas where greater concentration of driving is required, such as in heavy traffic.

Utah often posts messages on its electronic highway signs indicating how many people have died on state roads so far this year or season. They’re meant to improve safety, but a new study says the practice actually increases accidents.

That’s because the message is so clear that it distracts some drivers and increases nearby crashes, according to a study by Jonathan D. Hall, University of Toronto, and Joshua Madsen, University of Minnesota. .

“We hypothesize that by showing a potentially shocking and morbid statistic, death messages increase drivers’ cognitive loads, distracting them and crowding out their ability to drive safely,” the research paper states.

He notes that Utah is one of 26 states that regularly post such messages.

“We hope to help improve road safety by discouraging the use of these ‘catastrophic’ messages,” Hall wrote in an email to the Salt Lake Tribune. “We are finding that the increasing practice of displaying fatalities on digital highway signs (a political attempt to improve road safety) is in fact leading to an increase in the number of accidents.”

The study did not find the same problem with other more mundane messages on digital road signs – which in Utah can include jokes, travel times to key destinations, or warnings about collisions or accidents. traffic jams ahead.

The study focused on Texas because it only publishes messages about the deaths one week per month, always the week before the monthly meeting of the Texas Transportation Commission. This makes it possible to compare accidents near the signs when death messages appear at other times and messages.

The researchers found that over the course of several years, accidents increased by just over 2% within a 6 mile radius downstream when the fatality messages emerged.

“Our calculations on the back of the envelope suggest that death messages cause an additional 2,600 accidents and 16 deaths per year in Texas alone, with a total social cost of $ 377 million per year,” the study said.

The study found other interesting details:

• Death messages are more harmful when they report more deaths.

• More accidents occur when messages appear in areas where driving requires more concentration, such as congested areas or those with a series of electronic message boards.

• Fatality messages increase the number of accidents involving multiple vehicles, but not accidents involving a single car. The authors say this is consistent with an “increased cognitive load that causes the driver to make small mistakes, like getting out of the lane, rather than big mistakes, like getting off the road.”

• When “cognitive loads are low or the message is less intrusive, death messages plausibly help or have no effect” on crashes, he says.

• Drivers do not get used to messages over time. “Death messages are associated with an increase in accidents in every year but one, between 2013 and 2017,” he said.

The researchers note that other studies of digital road signs have found that messages about speeding, fog, or slippery roads are effective in reducing driving speed – even though their new study finds that fatal messages “can backfire with costly consequences”.

Robert Miles, director of traffic and safety at the Utah Department of Transportation, said his agency would take a close look at the new study, but added that the messages appeared to have helped Utah – which is exploiting its messages a little differently from Texas, in particular by giving figures for a month or a season and not for an entire year.

“This is something that we will be looking at,” he said of the study. “We want to look at all sources of information to try to improve safety. “

But he adds that “the study does not seem to correspond to our experience”.

He notes that Utah started using the messages in 2015 and that death rates have continued to decline since then.

Miles said safety messages score high in polls as something the public notices. “And people have told us anecdotally through our surveys that, ‘Yes, these messages are making a difference in our lives to help change the way we behave.’ “

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