A crash along Vermont's Interstate-91. Flickr/Slabcity Gang

It’s not entirely clear if highway fatality signs work. They might be worth it anyway.

Every Wednesday for the rest of 2016, the Vermont Agency of Transportation (VTrans) will update the body count. As of April 6, the state had 13 traffic fatalities in 2016, up from five in all of last year. In eight of those incidents, the VTrans chief engineer Kevin Marshia says, the deceased weren’t wearing seat belts. The agency is hoping that by publicly posting the number of highway deaths each week, more people might be frightened into buckling up—or putting down the cellphone, or backing away from the car while drunk, or traveling closer to the speed limit.

So every week, the state’s electronic message boards will carry the death count. This is not a new idea: Marshia says Vermont was specifically influenced by consistently updated traffic fatality signs in Tennessee and Colorado, but similar tactics have been used in many, many other states, Illinois, Ohio, Texas, and Utah included. (Utah’s signs reported on the number of days the state had gone without a fatality. “We wanted to actually have some positive news to report,” a Utah DOT spokesman said in 2014.)

A traffic fatality sign from the Michigan DOT’s 2013 campaign. (MDOT)

It’s not clear that the signs work—meaning it’s unclear whether they ultimately prevent deaths on the road. States have seen varying results from what are technically called “variable message signs” (VMSs, if you’re hip to traffic engineering). In Tennessee, for example, the transportation authority began using the signs in mid-2012, after an alarming spike in road deaths in the earlier part of the year attributed at least in part to poor seatbelt wearing behaviors and driving under the influence. By year’s end, the deaths had slowed, but were still up 8 percent over the year previous. As the program continued, however, road deaths decreased—though they still haven’t matched their 2011 lows. A 2013 study of traffic flow in Maryland found that of all messages that can be shown on variable message signs (danger/warning messages, informative/road condition messages, or regulatory/non-traffic-related messages), the non-traffic-related ones compelled the fewest drivers to reduce their speed. And a 1996 survey of 500 Washington, D.C. motorists found they were much more interested in “simple, reliable, and useful” messages on their VMSs than in safety warnings.

“There is no evidence that signs, catchy jingles, or 'y'all drive safely out there' messages do anything to change driver behavior," Russ Rader, the spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, told the Chicago Tribune last year. “The benefit comes when the message is coupled with sustained, visible enforcement so it creates an atmosphere where drivers believe that they could get a ticket.” Of course, it’s nearly impossible to measure the effectiveness of any one safety campaign. In other words: It’s signs plus other things that convince drivers to be less dumb on the road. For a real-world example, look to the Buckeye State, where Ohio State Troopers saw success with a program that coupled fatality signs with aggressive ticketing measures.

From a more cynical perspective, the signs are an easy win. They cost the state very little (they’re there already, providing helpful road condition reminders), and they make the state look like it’s doing something meaningful to prevent crashes. Still, VTrans’s Marshia argues, the signs are a strategy worth considering. “What we’re trying to do is trying to get people’s attention, and if using these boards can save a life, then that’s worth it,” he says.

And it appears that the signs have made at least some people pay better heed to the dangers of the road. In Georgia, drivers found traffic fatality signs disconcerting enough that the state’s PolitiFact arm was compelled to run a fact-check:

"GEORGIA ROADWAY FATALITIES THIS YEAR: 59," the sign stated in large lighted letters. "PLEASE DRIVE SAFELY."

Twenty-four days into January, could that be right?

...We contacted Natalie Dale, a spokeswoman for the Georgia Department of Transportation, who told us the message board’s numbers were already outdated.

Roadway deaths, statewide, for the new year were updated to 70…

American highways have generally become less hazardous, in part because well-engineered cars are getting safer every year. But the occasional, black-and-orange reminder that things can go very wrong is probably worth it.

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