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Traffic Signs: Are you paying enough attention to them?

Posted on May 28, 2015 | Posted by Kris Williamson

Sign, sign, everywhere a sign. This catchy tune is so very true, but are we paying enough attention to the signs that we see everywhere? According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), we aren't. A 2013 study of pedestrian fatalities found that, on average, a pedestrian was killed every two hours in a traffic accident. Over a ten year span, the percentage of pedestrian fatalities due to traffic incidents increased three percent. Yikes! So who is at fault? Is it the drivers or the pedestrians? Maybe a combination? Possibly we have just become blind to the signs that we pass each and every day. The bigger question is this: What can be done to reduce this number? This is where traffic signs may be the answer.

Luckily, there are some researchers from the University of Michigan and Brigham Young University who are trying to find an answer to this bigger question. They studied how traffic signs could grab the attention of drivers and, in return, save more lives. Since many accidents are the result of drivers missing (or possibly ignoring) signs on the road, they wanted to see if drivers responded differently when the signs presented a slightly different message. Their study, published in the Journal of Consumer Research, took some standard road signs that we encounter and altered them to give them a little more movement. 

Variations in street sign designs to test reaction times. 12-Point SignWorks

This photo shows three examples of school crossing signs.
Which one would you notice first while on the road?
Photo Credit: Brigham Young University

We all know that most street signs depicting people have a very simplistic stick figure design. The thought was to put action into the stick figures to see if drivers would notice them more. In a written statement, the study authors said, "A sign that evokes more perceived movement increases the observers' perception of risk, which in turn brings about earlier attention and earlier stopping." Perfect! That's what we need, right?

A variety of traffic signs altered to show more movement. 12-Point SignWorks
Some samples of variations in signage design to show lower and higher dynamism.
Photo Credit: the study in the Journal of Consumer Research

The researchers took their tweaked signs and tested them in a series of experiments, including driving simulations, reaction time exercises and eye-tracking tests. In all of the experiments, the researchers observed faster reaction times from the participants. (It make sense to me! I would probably not worry as much about a sign showing stacked rocks; however, a sign showing a rock falling to the ground would catch my eye!) From a researchers perspective, the faster response time also translates into distance. One experiment showed that hypothetical drivers reacted 50 milliseconds faster with with more dynamic traffic signs. In a car going 60 mph, that reaction time equals a car stopping 4.4 feet sooner on the road. That could save a life - or many lives.

One argument is whether or not the signs were noticed more because of the newness surrounding them. That does sound like a possibility. But...if there is a chance that the new sign designs could make even the slightest difference, wouldn't that be worth a little change? If we've been accustomed to the same road signs for decades, our eyes may need something fresh to make the important signage on the road stand out.

Interested in the regulations for standard highway signs and markings? You can check out the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) created by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). Understand that this is only a national standard that has been developed, and each municipality differs on how they comply with the MUTCD guidelines. You can see how your state has adopted the national standard HERE. If you want to see a change made to the designs of the signs, these offer some places to start the process.

As for 12-Point SignWorks, we are limited to only getting the word out when it comes to the traffic signs on major roadways since those signs are limited to and regulated by each municipality. We can, however, assist with local back road signs and signs on private property. We offer reflective materials that will be noticed at any time of day and could help improve visibility during the evening hours.

If you know of an area in need of a traffic sign that is not regulated by the FHWA, we can help! We can Custom traffic signs created by 12-Point SignWorks for Church of the City in Franklin, TN.create a dynamic custom sign for all to notice. Maybe you just like the look of road signs? We can personalize them for you as well! Check out the signs we made for Church of the City in Franklin.   

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