Death toll warning signs on highways could cause more accidents, not less

By Robert Preidt HealthDay Reporter
HealthDay Reporter

FRIDAY, April 22, 2022 (HealthDay News) — Displaying highway death tolls on roadside bulletin boards in an effort to curb crashes may actually cause more crashes, a new study suggests.

That’s because they distract drivers, the researchers said.

At least 27 states have used such messages. The new report focused on Texas, where officials decided to display the death toll on highways for one week out of every month.

“People have limited attention,” said study co-author Joshua Madsen, an assistant professor in the School of Management at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. “When a driver’s cognitive load is already at its maximum, adding a striking, sobering reminder of road deaths” [can] become a dangerous distraction.”

For the study, Madsen and his team compared crash data in Texas from January 2010 to July 2012, before the campaign, to August 2012 to December 2017 when it was underway. During the campaign, they also looked at the weekly differences every month.

The researchers found that there were 4.5% more accidents along the 10-kilometer (6.21-mile) highway where death rates were displayed during weeks when they were shown than during weeks without messages.

The increase is comparable to raising the speed limit from 3 to 5 miles per hour or reducing highway cops by 6% to 14%, previous research shows.

The findings, published April 21 in the journal Science, suggest that reports of traffic fatalities caused 2,600 additional accidents and 16 deaths in Texas each year.

That’s because these “in-your-face” messages about traffic fatalities temporarily affect drivers’ ability to respond to changes in traffic conditions, the study authors said in a university press release.

The researchers also found that the additional crashes associated with the messages increased as the death toll increased. The highest number occurred in January, when reports listed the total number of deaths from the previous year.

The study also found that accidents increased in areas where drivers needed more attention, such as heavy traffic or driving past multiple bulletin boards.

According to study co-author Jonathan Hall, “The reports also increased the number of multi-vehicle crashes, but not the number of single-vehicle crashes.” Hall is an assistant professor in the School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the University of Toronto in Canada.

“This equates to drivers with increased cognitive load making smaller errors as a result of distractions, such as moving out of a lane, rather than driving off the road,” Hall added.

The researchers did find a decrease in the number of accidents when the displayed death toll was low and when messages were displayed in areas where highways were less complex.

Overall, the findings suggest states should consider other ways to raise awareness about road safety, Madsen said.

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

More information

The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has practical tips to keep you safe.

SOURCE: University of Minnesota, press release, April 21, 2022

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