Strong Advocates
For the Injured And For A Safer Iowa

Does posting death tolls on highway signs help or hurt safety?

We have all seen the big electronic signs suspended above the highway that display safety messages, such as reminders to buckle up or admonitions against risky behavior like drunk driving or texting while driving. Sometimes these signs display the number of traffic fatalities that have occurred so far this year. A new study suggests that this display may not be serving the purpose for which it was intended – on the contrary, it may have a negative impact on safety.

A potentially fatal distraction

In 2013, the Iowa Department of Transportation launched the Zero Fatalities safety campaign. As part of this campaign, they began using highway signs across the state to broadcast the number of highway fatalities to date every year.

Professors from the University of Minnesota and the University of Toronto co-authored a study in which they analyzed car crashes that took place in the stretch of road immediately following these traffic signs. The professors’ findings seem to suggest that the presence of the fatality count in the signs had the opposite of their intended effect, increasing the number of crashes in the road – possibly by up to 1.35%.

The cause of the crashes

The cause of the uptick in crashes in the span immediately following one of these highway sign messages has not been proven. However, the professors who conducted the study theorize that the heavy message tends to take drivers’ minds off of the road and distract them from their driving enough to cause car accidents. This is supported by their finding that the number of crashes increased when the number of fatalities displayed on the screen increased.

Whether these findings are conclusive or not remains to be seen. Either way, if you see one of these signs over a highway on your commute, it’s a good idea to remain aware and cautious, as other drivers around you could possibly be more distracted than usual.