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I Respect Your Right to Drive Like a Maniac Down This Street, But…

Since so many drivers seem to lack any other kind, Needham, Massachusetts is hoping to appeal to their “emotional intelligence,” reports the Boston Globe.

As is so often the case, the community in question is trying to get people to drive more slowly on neighborhood streets with schools and children. The typical signage seems to do squat. As the story notes, “The idea is that seeing a child’s handwriting and drawing will make parents relate to the sign in a way they never would with an impersonal version.” In other words, it’s not the voice of the impersonal state, but a child — and how many SUVs loaded with parents’ own offspring are barreling down that road?

Interestingly, this idea did not stem from traffic engineers. Writs the Globe: “She said the novel approach came out of a conference she attended last year, when Daniel Pink, best-selling author of “A Whole New Mind,” talked about using so-called right-brain skills like empathy to communicate more effectively – and ultimately to be more successful.”

Pink himself “came upon the idea by accident while visiting a New York museum with his wife and three young children. The family took a break from touring to get something to eat at the museum cafeteria. ‘The line is just outrageously long,’ Pink recalled. ‘And I’m all stressed out about that because we don’t have a lot of time, and I don’t want to waste my time at this beautiful museum waiting for a grilled cheese sandwich.” Then he saw a sign that read, “Don’t worry. This line moves really quickly.’ Pink said he immediately felt much calmer and it made his entire experience at the museum better.’

This may all be a bit too soft for the New Yorker raised on “Don’t Even THINK of Parking Here” and its ilk. And I’m not sure about the legibility of those signs (then again, legibility is only half the issue). But I’m all for unconventional approaches, and this one seems an interesting parallel with the U.K.’s “road witch” trials and David Engwicht’s “intrigue and uncertainty” ethos, the idea that the “outdoor living room” of a residential street, one that shows signs of life, might be as or more effective than anonymous, disregarded signs. I’m also not sure about the ‘novelty effect,’ but in any case it will be interesting to see how it plays out (the town is trying the ‘empathetic’ signage for other purposes, as well). I like the idea of simply posting images of huge sets of eyes with any traffic message, as psychological experiments have shown how eye contact (not necessarily “real” eye contact) improves cooperation.

Part of me can’t help but to look at those “child-like” signs, meant to engender feelings of empathy for the nearby children, and think they almost say more about the drivers. We often hear about how children are “unpredictable” and do things like cross at inappropriate moments, but to look at the behavior of drivers through these school areas it is they who seem to be behaving without the appropriate amount of control and risk-awareness. How can a person drive in such an environment without the understanding that they are in the presence of unpredictability? (of course, with issues of speed, one tends to only hear from drivers about how they feel they are traveling at a speed that is safe for them, without taking into account the ethical dimension of how their behavior raises the risks to others). To take the analogy further, how many “children” do we see out on the roads, hostile to being reigned in, thinking that parental rules don’t apply to them, selfish to the extreme (swap a toddler’s crying for the horn), angry when their toys are taken away (how dare you remove parking spots!).

What do y’all think — more carrot, less stick? Or the reverse? Or a whole new way of thinking about the problem?

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This entry was posted on Tuesday, February 10th, 2009 at 10:13 am and is filed under Traffic Culture, Traffic Psychology, Traffic Signs. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

10 Responses to “I Respect Your Right to Drive Like a Maniac Down This Street, But…”

  1. Jeremy Says:

    I suggest a child-sized scarecrow or mannequin right on the double-yellow line with a handwritten “SLOW DOWN” sign. That might do it.

  2. Wes Says:

    “they feel they are traveling at a speed that is safe for them, without taking into account the ethical dimension of how their behavior raises the risks to others”

    One of the main reasons why I was attracted to your work. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, mostly while walking down the street…for obvious reasons. I often assume it is the car that removes the person from the situation, rendering them incapable of understanding the affects on others of their speeding, hasty turn around a blind corner, or just aggressively inching forward while “waiting” for a pedestrian to cross the street. I am starting to question that thinking because it assumes all selfishness and aggression stems from the car. Paul Krugman suggests it is rising inequality that is causing everyone to disregard everyone about them. That makes sense to me, or just plain consumerism, which encourages a sense of me me me. Will a sign help to discourage that? I have little faith in signs, but maybe.

  3. Omri Says:

    These signs are more effective at appealing to people’s better natures, but not everyone HAS a better nature.

    We need bollards here in Mass.

  4. Dan Says:

    An interesting idea for sure, and although I’m not positive it’d work, I’d be interested in seeing results – I hope someone’s studying traffic speeds with these signs vs. standard signs vs. none at all.

    Something similar has been popping up in New York State for a couple of years, at least around the Albany area – in/before construction zones, construction-orange signs are being used that say “Slow Down, My Mommy/Daddy Works Here” in a kid’s handwriting. They solved the legibility problem by making the letters about twice as high as normal, and they’re fairly readable. (Whether or not they work is another question entirely, and one I don’t know the answer to.)

  5. 2whls3spds Says:

    These signs are based on the assumption that 1) The driver will notice them and 2)assumption that the driver has any empathy at all.

    I have seen better and worse ideas, so it surely won’t hurt to try it.

    Aaron

  6. Dave Says:

    I think it’s an interesting idea, but I think most people need stronger interaction in order to really change habits. Try the mannequin of a child, only have it suddenly dart partway into the road as the car approaches :)

    I think more often than not, measures such as speed bumps, roundabouts, or just simply making smaller, more confined streets are necessary if you want to get people in cars to slow down. We all have a tendency to get stressed and hurry or get upset at people who are impeding our progress, and the automobile allows you to do that without any of the physical limitations that exist for pedestrians and cyclists (who can only go as fast as they can physically propel themselves).

    Obviously, it’s still up to the individual to make the choice whether to drive recklessly or not, but our politics, society, and infrastructure tendencies all say “we are all about enabling you as the operator of an automobile,” so we often don’t put much pressure on people to think about other public space users.

    All that to say, if you put a sign like that on an open two-lane road where cars have plenty of room in their lanes, without any other traffic calming measures, I’m a bit doubtful it would do much.

  7. W. K. Lis Says:

    It should be remembered that roads are being designed, NOT for the posted speed limit, but ABOVE the posted speed limit.
    As well, most people do slow down when there are pot holes. So, why were cobblestones removed on older roads and replaced with asphalt? So the cars could go at a higher speed.

  8. Kate Fitzpatrick Says:

    The evidence is all anecdotal, but I get the sense that the signs are jogging people’s mind back to the road. Most of the signs are up near schools, so there are several visual clues at once.

    I know some of them are a bit hard to see in pictures, but most are pretty clear up close. I have to say, all of the gruesome and gory signs (remember, this was a class of 13 and 14 year olds, half of whom were boys)didn’t make the cut as emotionally intelligent.

    Thank you for your interest in Traffic in Needham!

  9. Dacey Says:

    Is there a way to locate someone locally to try this?

  10. Las Vegas DUI Lawyer Says:

    I for one am all for more carrot less stick. I find it an infringement on civil liberties when the state or fed step in. They are often heavy handed and crushing to most. If we had more community with one another, this place would be… a better place. Sure appeal to their better nature, but then do it everywhere. I’m not suggesting munchkinland, but a heartfelt appeal here and there to bring bad etiquette [that we lost in the 60's due to certain groups protesting a bit too much in my opinion] that we lost in the past.

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Traffic Tom Vanderbilt

How We Drive is the companion blog to Tom Vanderbilt’s New York Times bestselling book, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), published by Alfred A. Knopf in the U.S. and Canada, Penguin in the U.K, and in languages other than English by a number of other fine publishers worldwide.

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