Have Amusing Signs Become a Road Hazard?
The federal government will soon ban humorous electronic messages on highways
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You’ve likely seen those quirky, funny electronic signs along the highway and had a quick chuckle. Perhaps you’ve driven through Ohio and seen the one that says, “Visiting in-laws? Slow down, get there late.” Or in Arizona, where drivers are reminded to keep their “Hands on the wheel, not your meal.” But recently, the federal government decided these signs are no laughing matter. The U.S. Department of Transportation has issued new guidelines that ban funny messages on highway signs. States have 2 years to comply.
What’s behind this decision? It turns out, it’s not just about not being fun at parties. There’s some serious economic justification for why we might have thought these signs could work in getting people to change their behavior. But goood theories can sometimes overlook the complexity of real-world applications, leading to unintended consequences. It turns out that highway message boards can be dangerous and the Federal Government has decided enough is enough.
Attention Economics and Road Safety Messaging
Our biggest treasures of the 21st century are not microchips, windmills, or solar panels. There’s something even more sought after—the attention of mankind. In our digital age, attention is a scarce and valuable resource. This idea is the cornerstone of attention economics. In fact, back in 1971, Nobel Laureate Herbert Simon predicted what would become the most valuable resource in the information age:
In an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. (Simon, 1971)
In a world flooded with information, the real battle is for our attention. Every billboard, every ad, every highway traffic sign is fighting for a slice of our attention. Those highway signs are usually plain and informative, but many states began using humor to make their safety messages stand out.
They’re applying a principle from attention economics directly to public safety. A funny or intriguing message grabs attention better than a dull one. It’s supposed to make you think and, more importantly, act. The problem? People aren’t acting the way they should. And when people act incorrectly behind the wheel of a car, actions can turn dangerous.
Does it Create Attention or Distraction?
When it comes to implementing policies, especially in economics, there’s a fundamental truth we often encounter: good intentions don’t always lead to good outcomes. We call this unintended consequences. It’s like trying to solve a traffic jam in one part of town but ending up creating a new bottleneck elsewhere.
The impact of highway signs is a prime example. There’s been a mix of studies on this, many small in scale or based on simulations. But one consistent thread emerges: while these signs do catch drivers’ attention, they might also distract them. Drivers might catch the main points on the sign, but they’re also more prone to mistakes.
But here’s an interesting twist: it might not just be the message itself that’s the issue. It could be how the message is delivered. Alex Cardazzi’s recent research sheds light on this. He looked at dynamic electronic signs versus static ones. You know, the ones that change messages every few seconds? Turns out, they might be more harmful than their static counterparts.
Cardazzi found that while drivers tend to slow down when these electronic signs are on, they also face a higher risk of crashing. It’s a classic case of too much information overload. When signs change messages constantly, it’s not just a single distraction – it’s a series of them, one after the other. Cardazzi crunched the data and came up with some startling estimates:
Eliminating these multi-page, attention-grabbing messages on highways for just one month would likely decrease the average crashes per kilometer per month from 1.4 to 1.3.
For context, Virginia experienced around 128,000 crashes in 2019. Cardazzi’s analysis suggests that about 1,875 of these crashes could be linked to these multi-page highway messages. And while not every crash is fatal, some tragically are.
If we apply the same likelihood of fatalities to these crashes as we do to others, Cardazzi’s findings suggest that eliminating multi-page messages could have prevented around 32 deaths over the same period.
Balancing Engagement with Safety
This brings us to a pivotal question: how do we strike the right balance? How do we keep drivers both informed and safe, without transforming our highways into a stage for comedy? This is the complex challenge that the federal government has placed before the states. Their solution? To tip the scales in favor of safety rather than engagement. As with any policy decision, there are diverse opinions. Arizona Representative David Cook, for instance, questions this approach, seeing it as an example of federal overreach:
Why are you trying to have the federal government come in and tell us what we can do in our own state? Prime example that the federal government is not focusing on what they need to be.
Cook’s point highlights a classic economic and political debate: the balance of power between federal oversight and state autonomy. But let’s zoom out for a moment. This isn’t just about reducing distractions; it’s about grasping the real-life impact of these distractions. In economics, we often talk about costs and benefits, but here, we’re measuring those costs and benefits in the most human terms possible—human lives.
The new federal guidelines bring us back to a fundamental principle: safety first, always. It’s a reminder of the weighty responsibility that comes with capturing public attention, particularly when that attention could mean the difference between life and death. We might lose a bit of humor on our drives, but the end goal remains crystal clear — ensuring that everyone gets home safely.
Herbet Simon won the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel 1978 [Nobel Foundation]
There were an estimated 6,063,428 police-reported non-fatal traffic crashes in the United States 2021 [U.S. Department of Transportation]
Arizona has more than 300 electronic signs above its highways [Associated Press]
There were. anestimated 3,522 people killed in 2021 due to distracted driving [National Highway Traffic Safety Administration]