MORE THAN 37,000 PEOPLE
are killed every year in the U.S. due to car accidents, and another 2.35 million are injured or disabled. But what if a significant number of these accidents could be avoided by a simple redesign of traffic signs?
That’s a possibility explored in a new study by Luca Cian, a post-doctoral scholar at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business in Ann Arbor; Aradhna Krishna, a professor at Ross; and Ryan Elder, a professor at Brigham Young University’s Marriott School of Management in Provo, Utah. In five experiments, they found that drivers react significantly faster to warning signs that depict movement than to signs with images that appear more static.
“From evolutionary psychology we know that humans have developed systems to detect potential predators and other dangers,” says Krishna. “Our attention system has evolved to detect actual movement automatically and quickly.” The researchers wanted to determine whether that inborn tendency was also true for depictions of motion.
Cian, Krishna, and Elder used driving simulations, click-data heat maps, surveys, reaction time exercises, and eye-tracking to explore how static imagery that implies motion can impact behavior. In one experiment, participants in a driving simulation reacted an average of 50 milliseconds faster to warning signs with higher dynamism. For a car going 60 mph, that translates into an extra 4.4 feet of stopping distance—enough to avoid an accident altogether.
In another experiment, the researchers used eye-tracking technology to measure how long it takes a person’s eyes to notice a traffic sign. They found that signs with higher perceived movement attracted people’s attention earlier, and held it longer, than static signs.
A sign that depicts movement “increases the observer’s perception of risk, which in turn brings about earlier attention and earlier stopping,” says Elder. For example, in the picture above, Elder stands with several pedestrian crossing signs. The school crossing sign from the U.S., at bottom right, has low dynamism, which the brain can easily dismiss as unimportant, he explains. The one from Poland at bottom left, however, is highly dynamic—the figures appear to be sprinting. “You can imagine them being in front of your car in a hurry,” he says. “That has important consequences.”
The researchers hope the study will inspire policy changes that will help reduce accident-related injuries and deaths. They also see their research leading to signs that encourage other positive consumer behaviors, such as recycling more, eating healthier food, or paying closer attention to safety labels.
“A Sign of Things to Come: Behavioral Change Through Dynamic Iconography” appeared in the April 2015 issue of the Journal of Consumer Research.