Carlson School Research in the Media: Crash Deaths
Tuesday, January 17, 2023
Displaying the crash death toll on highway message boards is a common awareness campaign, but Carlson School research shows this tactic actually leads to more crashes.
A study in Science co-authored by Assistant Professor Joshua Madsen focused on Texas, where officials displayed these messages one week each month. After examining the crash data, the researchers found:
- There were more crashes during the week with fatality messaging compared to weeks without.
- Displaying a fatality message increased the number of crashes over the 10 km (6.21 mi) following the message boards by 4.5%. This increase is comparable to raising the speed limit 3-5 mph or reducing highway troopers by 6-14%, according to previous research.
- Their findings suggest fatality messages cause an additional 2,600 crashes and 16 deaths per year in Texas, costing $377 million each year.
“Driving on a busy highway and having to navigate lane changes is more cognitively demanding than driving down a straight stretch of empty highway,” said Madsen. “People have limited attention. When a driver’s cognitive load is already maxed out, adding on an attention-grabbing, sobering reminder of highway deaths can become a dangerous distraction.”
The findings led to media coverage in major news outlets including The Wall Street Journal, U.S. News & World Report, The Hill, The Economist, CBS Radio affiliates, and more.
This article appeared in the Winter 2023 Discovery magazine
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