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Electronic Signs That Warn Drivers of Accident Statistics Blamed for Causing Accidents


June 29, 2022

According to an online news report published on newscientist.com, a new research study has discovered that street signs may cause more traffic accidents. Traffic accident statistics used in the study showed that the number of motor vehicle accidents on roads in Texas increased when "electronic signs were used to display driving fatality figures." The study suggests that some warnings displayed on electronic road signs can cause "more harm than good."

Electronic signs placed above U.S. highways highlighting annual traffic fatalities were designed to shock drivers into driving safely. However, the study's statisticians warn that there is convincing evidence that shows these signs and warning messages cause crashes.

According to Jonathan Hall with the University of Toronto and Mr. Hall's colleagues, they analyzed accident data from Texas since it uses electronic signs with fatality warnings only one week per month, which provided substantial controlled data to compare. The study's researchers compared the number of accidents that occurred two years before the signs were introduced with the five years’ worth of crash data collected while the signs were being used with the warnings. The researchers found that displaying fatality messages increased the number of highway accidents by 4.5 percent on the six mile span with the electric signs. Their conclusions indicate that fatality messages caused an additional 2,600 accidents and sixteen deaths per year throughout the state of Texas.

Mr. Hall blames the increased number of highway accidents on distraction and an increase in a driver's cognitive load as they absorb the message. Hall speculated, "You see it, and you're thinking about it, and so you don't put on your brakes quite as soon, and these little errors, 1 in 50 times, might cause a crash." Although Hall believes that the perfect evidence would include a randomized control trial, his study presents strong and compelling evidence. He also believes that the number of fatalities shown on an electronic sign also alters its impact as more significant numbers are more shocking to drivers. This finding was discovered when analyzing Texas' fatality warnings displayed in January and February. Texas resets its traffic death statistics in February. The team witnessed a large drop in accidents in February compared with January.

Hall expressed that his team has sent letters to all 50 states cautioning that such warning messages lead to an increase in accidents and asked the state officials to collaborate on additional research. However, they received very little positive response. Mr. Hall believes that state officials have a belief that "the signs can't hurt." 

Although the Texas Department of Transportation (TDOT) failed to respond to a request for comment, it's understood that TDOT will not display these warning messages above highways anymore.

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Source: https://www.newscientist.com/article/2316741-traffic-accident-statistics-on-signs-may-actually-cause-more-crashes/

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