Highway Signs Showing Car Fatalities Are Causing Crashes, Study Says

Obviously, nobody leaves their home or work intent on getting in a car accident. However, many drivers’ bad habits can cause situations in which they are very likely. From casual speeding on busy roads to texting and driving, there’s a virtually endless list of causes of car crashes. As a result, some states in the U.S. have resorted to showing the number of deaths on interstate signs to remind drivers to be safe behind the wheel. However, this technique may be backfiring.

Study finds that crashes went up near signs showing fatality numbers in Texas

Science.org reports that displaying the number of fatalities on roadways can actually cause more crashes instead of preventing them.

This information was born out of an interaction with one of these signs that a behavioral economist at the University of Minnesota named Joshua Madsen had. He saw a sign while driving in Illinois displaying the number of deaths on the road. Madsen says the sign caused his mind to start racing about all the potential accidents while driving. Which, effectively, is the concern behind the study. Can these signs overwhelm drivers and actually cause accidents instead of preventing them?

California Highway sign displaying message about safety and driving, urging drivers not to speed
Highway sign displaying anti-speeding message | David McNew/Getty Images

Madsen enlisted Jonathan Hall, who studies transportation economics at the University of Toronto. Together, they analyzed car crash data from the state of Texas. For one week every month, Texas displays the number of fatalities on the state’s roadways on 880 signs throughout state highways. These signs are typically the ones you’ll see displaying traffic and weather info.

Madsen and Hall analyzed data from the years 2010 to 2017. They compared data from weeks the fatality messages were displayed to weeks that they weren’t. Taking weather conditions and holidays into consideration (because both typically cause an increase in car crashes independently,) they saw an increase in crashes associated with the signs. However, some argue that this data doesn’t show enough of an increase to consider it reasonable to think the signs are causing crashes.

Is the increased number of crashes just a coincidence?

Ft Lauderdale Highway Sign Displaying Anti Texting Message which may be more effective than displaying fatalities
Highway sign displaying a message about texting and driving | Jeffrey Greenberg/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

The study found a 1.35 percent increase in crashes within 10 kilometers down the road from the signs.

Gerald Ullman, a transportation engineer at Texas A&M University, says that the analysis of the data is solid. However, because people internalize and react differently to the number of fatalities (whether they be bigger or smaller than they might have thought), Ullman thinks the increase being tied to the signs is a bit counterintuitive.

Despite the number of increases being minimal, it is, unfortunately, an increase. It may be a small number, but it’s worth remembering that number is still tied to actual human lives. Car accidents are not to be taken lightly. To Madsen’s point, their study does prove one thing, certainly. The signs are not doing anything to reduce the number of crashes.

So, while the number is minuscule, it’s hard to justify keeping the signs around even if the increase in crashes is coincidental. After all, seven years of no decrease in accidents associated with the signs doesn’t bode well for their importance. Perhaps, then, Texas and the other 27 U.S. states using these tactics should consider removing these signs altogether.

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