When it comes to traffic safety, fun beats fear

This article was originally published by Mobility Lab.
Being a pedestrian is, unfortunately, an increasingly dangerous proposition in many communities throughout the United States. A recent report from the Governors Highway Safety Association shows that, just between 2014 and 2015, pedestrian deaths grew 10 percent.

In many regions, public safety campaigns are a go-to tactic to address the widespread issue of pedestrian safety. But the current, most prevalent approach of “fear appeals” – attempting to scare people into safer behaviors – has not been effective. Changing human behavior is no small task.

Routine tasks involved in commuting develop into automated habits, undermining the belief in many campaigns that road users make rational safety choices based on logic, information or fear. Such an approach tends to place the safety burden on the most vulnerable road users and remove it from drivers.

In the D.C. region, the Street Smart campaign, for example, has come under fire in the past as being counterproductive for its use of fear-based messages directed at pedestrians and bicyclists.

Fear-based messaging can function as victim-blaming, placing fault on the most vulnerable road users, while further entrenching attitudes that discourage biking and walking and implying a lack of accountability for those most responsible. Recently, Toronto residents critiqued the Toronto Transit Commission’s use of signage that implied pedestrians and bicyclists were to blame for crashes.

Additionally, fear-based approaches are indirect messages that focus on the consequences of unsafe actions, rather than the specific actions that can make people act more safely. Such an approach hardly accounts for the fact that people, using any mode, behave in predictable – though not necessarily rational – ways.

Rather than an indirect, over-the-top, fear-inducing approach, more direct and positive messages that bring safety to mind combined with changes in infrastructure design that make safe actions the easiest would bring road users naturally towards safer travel habits.

Safety through humor

In Arlington County, Va., traffic officials saw potential to bring drivers back to the basics at the Washington Boulevard exit onto Route 50, one of the county’s most troublesome intersections. The lane’s short merge space had drivers looking to the left and backwards as they tried to fit into the traffic, failing to account for whether or not the car in front of them managed to move ahead.

In August 2013, the dynamic message board at the intersection, which had previously warned drivers of the dangerous merge, changed its message to something simple that pointed directly at drivers’ immediate actions: “Do not hit the car in front of you.” Though it seems laughable, accidents at that intersection actually dropped significantly in the following weeks.

Experiments like these have popped up in other states in the past couple years, with state departments of transportation using humor on their highway dynamic message signs. Iowa has been posting humorous messages for two years and has seen a drop in road deaths since the campaign began. They can’t directly attribute the improvement to the safety campaign, but officials behind the idea are optimistic that it at least gets people talking about safety, an important first step.

Using a sense of humor, such as riffing on Bostonians’ accents or paying homage to Star Wars on May 4, sounds less like the actions of a government agency and is novel, making drivers more likely to notice the signs and think about their message, at least drawing attention to the biggest of safety reminders. Growing this approach into a full safety campaign, with frequently changing messages to which the community contributes, such as in a contest from the Illinois Tollway, can help engage road users in road safety and keep it in their consciousness while traveling.

Funny – but not distracting – signs can be effective in changing behaviors. The message is direct, and positive, making it much more likely for commuters to apply it to themselves. Proper signaling that engages the target audience can provide a good supplement to nudge road users toward better behavior. However, these can only have limited effectiveness without changes to the physical environment that can directly influence habits.

Signage can only do so much

While a positive, engaging and well-placed sign on the road or in the subway may remind people of their behavior in otherwise automated modes, it will likely not permanently change their behaviors. In the long run, doing so requires redesigning the environment to promote the ideal response.

The recent case of multiple drivers crashing into a D.C. gelato factory provides a clear case study. The adjacent street’s design allows drivers to speed toward the curve, and a safety campaign would be unlikely to override such a setting. Writing on Greater Greater Washington, Edward Russell suggests that a number of design changes, from sharper corners to traffic circles, could naturally cause drivers to slow down.

For towns seeking safer streets, one idea gaining traction is that of “naked streets,” where lane markings and signs are removed entirely. This has worked well in certain situations due to the concept of risk compensation. Traditionally, centerlines and traffic signals make drivers think they are safer, therefore causing them to drive more dangerously. In contrast, naked streets feel less secure to drivers, leading to lower speeds, more cautious actions, and better communication with other road users.

Taking naked streets to another level is shared streets (or woonerfs), where cars share the road with bicyclists and pedestrians. CityLab’s Eric Jaffe explains that, due to the lack of “traditional safety infrastructure … everyone is forced to become more alert and therefore more cooperative.” Though not without concerns of drivers resisting adaptation, the shared streets concept has proven successful in multiple cities and can provide lessons in how to redistribute ownership of the road and to make it safer for everybody who uses it.

Empowering future road safety

Determining how officials pursue safer streets requires a serious study of the effectiveness of various approaches, as well as considering ideas that might seem counterintuitive. Messaging should reflect our cultural priorities in protecting and prioritizing vulnerable users. Understanding how people do or do not react to various stimuli, from safety campaigns to street designs, can have surprising effects in addressing traffic safety.

Properly placed and engaging signals with direct, positive messaging can bring safety back to the forefront of people’s minds and have them actively consider their behavior. However, to change the roots of bad driving and long-standing, culturally ingrained habits, planners will have to shift the built environment itself in order to encourage the best possible actions from road users.

Photos, from top: A woman crosses a crosswalk in Pentagon City, Va. (Sam Kittner for Mobility Lab, http://www.kittner.com). A humorous traffic sign in Iowa (Iowa Department of Transportation).

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