Highway Signs Showing Fatal Car Crash Numbers Cause More Accidents, Study Says

Traffic Study
Highway death toll signs are the subject of a new study.University of Toronto/Jonathan Hall

Highway signs showing number of fatal traffic accidents actually distract drivers, study says.

Public safety campaigns designed to reduce car crashes are actually having the opposite effect, according to new research.

Highway signs that show the number of traffic fatalities instead cause more car accidents, a joint study by the universities of Toronto and Minnesota has found.

Researchers focused on Texas, where state officials display those messages one week per month. The analysts compared crash data from before the highway campaign began, from Jan. 2010 to July 2012, to numbers from after its inception, from Aug. 2012 to Dec. 2017.

Displaying fatality messages increased the number of crashes in the next six miles by 4.5%, the study said. The data also suggested that fatality messages cause an additional 2,600 crashes and 16 deaths each year, costing $377 million annually, the survey found.

University of Toronto assistant professor Jonathan Hall and University of Minnesota Carlson School of Management assistant professor Joshua Madsen published their findings in Science.

Traffic death signs are distracting to drivers already overburdened by multiple sources of information, the scholars said.

“Driving on a busy highway and having to navigate lane changes is more cognitively demanding than driving down a straight stretch of empty highway,” said Madsen. “People have limited attention. When a driver’s cognitive load is already maxed out, adding on an attention-grabbing, sobering reminder of highway deaths can become a dangerous distraction.”

The authors suggested states find alternate ways to deliver warnings about car crashes, one of the nation's leading causes of death.

“Distracted driving is dangerous driving,” Madsen said. “Perhaps these campaigns can be reimagined to reach drivers in a safer way, such as when they are stopped at an intersection, so that their attention while driving remains focused on the roads.”

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