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What Traffic Signs Get Wrong (And How To Fix Them)

People pay more attention to signs that appear dynamic than those with static figures, according to a new study.

What Traffic Signs Get Wrong (And How To Fix Them)
[Top photo: Christopher Boswell via Shutterstock]

Drivers don’t always pay enough attention to the road signs around them. For instance, a Chicago survey last year found that 61% of drivers didn’t stop at pedestrian crossings, even when there were signs telling them to do so. Worse, the faster drivers go, the narrower their field of vision, meaning they focus on a smaller area of space in front of them, so they might be slower to register warning signs.

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Courtesy Brigham Young University

One way to improve how drivers react to street signs? Make them look more dynamic. A group of researchers from the University of Michigan and Brigham Young University used eye-tracking technology to examine how moving or static figures featured in the various designs of road signs affected drivers’ reaction times. In their paper, published in the Journal of Consumer Research, they found that people paid better attention to signs with more implied movement, like when a pedestrian looks like she’s running instead of walking, or a rock looks like it’s in the process of falling off a cliff instead of sitting on the road.


“If the figures look like they’re walking, then your brain doesn’t worry about them shooting out into the road,” study author Ryan Elder of Brigham Young University–who worked with lead authors Luca Cian and Aradhna Krishna from the University of Michigan–said in a press release. “But if they’re running, then you can imagine them being in front of your car in a hurry.”

Study subjects reacted an average of 50 milliseconds faster to dynamic signs, a figure that could be significant at higher speeds–a car traveling 60 miles per hour travels 4.5 feet during that time.

Courtesy Brigham Young University

The more permanent answer to helping drivers pay attention to road signs might be slowing down traffic altogether, but that’s not a politically popular idea in many American cities. As more cities get serious about traffic safety, dynamic signage might help keep everyone safe on the road.

[via Science Daily]

About the author

Shaunacy Ferro is a Brooklyn-based writer covering architecture, urban design and the sciences. She's on a lifelong quest for the perfect donut.

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