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ChangingMinds Blog! > Blog Archive > 13-Jul-12


Friday 13-July-12

Emotionally intelligent signage and traffic calming

Getting drivers to slow down in residential areas is a perpetual problem. While some obey the road signs, many do not. In fact exceeding the speed limit may be the most common way of breaking the law.

So how do you get drivers to slow down?

There are two basic ways to do this: force them or persuade them. Forcing methods mostly either make the road bumpy or narrow so the driver has to slow down to avoid discomfort or damaging the car. Asking them is more interesting, particularly from the psychological angle. So let's look at some of the methods used.

One way of persuading is to sit them down and teach them the error of their ways, with gruesome pictures and lectures on how many more people are killed at 35 mph than 30 mph, and so on. You can't do this to everyone, but it used as an alternative in the UK to a fine and points on your licence. It worked on my wife, who now is somewhat more careful.

The other option is is signage, which opens the question of what signs you can use. Although many of us seldom think about how signs are designed, it is in fact a whole discipline and industry of its own. There is also a psychology and the use of fonts and backgrounds is full of significance.

A common attempt at traffic messaging is to show the driver the speed they are actually doing,  This provides clear feedback. which seems to make sense, yet sadly some people just use these to see how fast they can go. An alternative is an illuminated speed limit sign that just flashes when you go over the speed limit. There's one near me and it seems moderately successful.

In Portland Oregon, they are more eloquent, with a friendly sign that says 'This little town is Heaven to us. Don't drive like Hell through it.' This is not only a bit long for a driver to read, but it also issues an embedded command (drive like hell), to which some people may react by showing that they can drive like hell. Whenever you say 'Don't X', you are also subtly suggest that they actually do X. This is sometimes called the 'Don't think of a pink elephant' paradox.

Government thinking around traffic calming can be a bit uncreative, although a town in the UK caused alarm with child-shaped bollards. There is a good point here, which is that even if drivers don't have children themselves, these are a vulnerable group where there are strong social values that dictated care must be taken around them, which means forcing people to think about children can trigger this instinct. The idea of using human images rather than words is also a good one as we process pictures quicker than text. This symbolism is used in France where you can see human silhouette cut-outs on country roads where people have been killed.

When people take matters into their own hands it can get somewhat more interesting. For example the UK villager who painted a huge 30mph sign on the side of his house (though I can't see this being taken up across the country).  Something that is personal is the way people are protective of their own children, and some signs concerning this can be downright threatening, like the sign that said 'Hit my kid or dog because you're speeding, you won't need a lawyer'.. Maybe these will work, but also maybe they will trigger a reactive disobedience. Their legality may also be problematic.

An interesting overall approach has been publicized by author Dan Pink recently under the thoughtfully evocative banner of 'Emotionally Intelligent Signage'. The idea is to consider how people will feel when they read the signs and design the wording and layout carefully for this purpose.

A neat sign in Seattle says 'Slow down. Drive like you live here'. Note the clever wording here -- by saying 'drive like you live here' the sign grabs the reader and makes them think what it like to live there with cars zooming by at speed. Not so nice, so traffic slows down in consideration for their own imagination, not because of the law and not because they particularly care about the people who live there. I can't say much for the rest of the design of the sign. The 'drive like you live here' is split and the 'slow down' is green, giving subtle permission. Red would be better.

However, the sign I like the most goes back to people in the community. A frustrated mother in Wethersfield, Conneticut, combined the children principle and 'drive like you live here' to produce the brilliant 'Drive like your kids live here'. Good signage principles too, with lots of red to grab attention and official-looking overall design to trigger law-abiding instincts. And most of all, making it personal by bringing kids into it.

And it's now a national campaign, with signs you can buy and people taking it up everywhere.

Your comments

Here in South Africa, road deaths are a major issue. I intend to forward this post to relevant authorities if that is OK by you, David?

One of the most effective signs we have is an image of a mother and child crossing the road with the message: "Please don't kill us". Although "kill us" could be taken as a command, I think it is far too poignant to act in that way.

For myself, in the late 1980's, after I had been driving for 20 years, I attended a three-day advanced driving course, with two very macho ex-Rhodesian police officers as instructors. Yes, there were some lectures with statistics, shock/horror pictures and lurid descriptions from the ex-policemen of what they had encountered, but 80% was hands-on.

On the first day I drove for approx. 40km with an instructor in the passenger seat. Piece by piece, and in no uncertain terms, he took my driving apart. If anyone were to tell me that they were not shaken up by such an experience, I would have to think they were lying.

The next two days were spent putting me and my driving back together again. It consisted of a few lectures, lots of driving in all kinds of traffic conditions with me giving a running commentary and a half day on the skidpan. There were far too many details for me to go into here. By the end of it, I can't say that I had suddenly become a brilliant driver but I had developed some new skills and, most importantly, my attitude and thought processes changed, and it has stuck with me. It has become a matter of pride to be a safe driver and that's the attitude those instructors managed to instil.

I'm sure you are familiar with the training techniques involved in what I have described. They are rather crude but, at least for me, very effective.

-- Graham J.

Dave replies: If the post helps save one life, Graham, then it would be brilliant. I'd be interested to hear if the thinking gets picked up. Well done for doing advanced driving -- that's another way to save lives (and maybe your own one day). I've done a few courses like skid training and race training (good for keeping it smooth) but not advanced -- maybe I should.

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