Dynamic messaging signs are a common site on major interstates in Florida and throughout the country. These large electronic signs warn drivers about traffic congestion, accidents and poor road and weather conditions, and they are also used to send safety messages. As an example, in Texas, 880 DMS signs display year-to-date traffic accident fatalities, which officials hoped would encourage motorists to slow down and drive more carefully. However, the results of a study published in the academic journal Science suggest that the death toll messaging has actually made the roads in the Lone Star State more dangerous.
After studying seven years’ worth of data, the researchers discovered that the number of motor vehicle accidents on the three miles of road beyond the DMS signs increased by 1.52% when safety campaigns were run and fatality figures were displayed. They also noticed that the rise in accidents was even more pronounced later in the year when the number of deaths displayed on the signs was higher. The researchers identified 2,600 crashes and 16 deaths that they believe were linked to the fatality messaging.
DMS signs in Florida
The researchers concluded that safety messages cause accidents because they distract drivers by making them worry about crashing. This may concern Florida drivers because the Sunshine State has hundreds of DMS signs that are often used to display safety messaging. The Florida Department of Transportation recently announced that its DMS signs will be upgraded with LED displays capable of displaying full-color text and graphics, which will make them even more distracting.
According to the researchers who conducted the Texas study, actions like displaying fatality figures and upgrading signs with LED displays are taken by officials who assume their policies will work and fail to consult experts. They refer to this behavior as armchair psychology. This is the same kind of thinking that led the federal government to spend $1 billion on an anti-drug media campaign that led to an increase in marijuana use among teenagers. If you see a safety message displayed on a DMS sign, you should pay extra attention because the drivers around you will likely be distracted.