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Nontraditional digital highway safety messages effective, researchers say

Photo: Willowpix/iStockphoto

Charlottesville, VA — Aimed at getting motorists to avoid distracted driving and other unsafe behaviors while behind the wheel, those digital roadway signs with short, quirky messages such as “Get your head out of your apps” and “Mom needs your hug not your text” are hitting their mark, say researchers from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.

Commissioned by the Virginia Department of Transportation, the study involved 300 state residents reading 80 different nontraditional road safety messages grouped by their associated behavior (e.g., general safe driving, driving without a seat belt), emotion (e.g., humor) and theme (e.g., sports, statistics). As participants read the messages, their neuro-cognitive responses were observed via a functional near-infrared spectroscopy device worn on the head. Later, the participants were asked to recall the messages, to identify the intent of the messages and about their perception of the messages.

Results show that all of the messages were perceived to be relatively effective and memorable, to varying degrees.

“Messages about distracted driving and driving without a seat belt, messages meant to provoke a negative emotion, and messages using statistics are perceived to most likely change driver behavior,” the researchers wrote. “Gender, age and driving behavior have a small effect on perception.”

Females, drivers older than 65, and “low-risk” and “high-risk” drivers were significantly more likely to believe the messages were effective.

The researchers also learned exactly what makes the messages effective.


“Making the intent very clear was the No. 1 rule of thumb,” Tripp Shealy, an assistant professor in the university’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, told Safety+Health. “No. 2 is eliciting some type of emotional response, positive or negative.” Stark messages about driver fatalities (e.g., the number of deaths among drivers who weren’t wearing seat belts in a given year) particularly struck a chord.

“We actually had several people cry at the negative ones,” Shealy told S+H. “Either they were in a recent accident or that resonated with them” for other reasons.

The researchers provided VDOT with the following recommendations:

  • Distracted driving prevention messages should represent a high proportion of nontraditional safety messages.
  • Messages should address a specific behavior change (e.g., wearing a seat belt, not driving impaired).
  • A larger portion of messages should evoke an emotional response.
  • Messages should use word play, rhyming or statistics where possible.
  • Messages should avoid sports.

The study was presented to the Commonwealth Transportation Board on July 20.

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