CONTACTTRAFFICABOUT TOM VANDERBILTOTHER WRITING CONTACT ABOUT THE BOOK

Honks and Consciousness

Via Nudge, a fascinating article about trying to prevent railway crossing deaths (by pedestrians) using a variety of behavioral cues intended to counter perceptual biases and guide decision-making:

From all this research, Shroff identified three major decision-making principles in operation on the Wadala tracks. “One is a combination of the Leibowitz Hypothesis and the Looming Effect. Large objects appear to move slower than small objects, and people can’t judge their speed,” she says. “Another is the Cocktail Party Effect: The brain isn’t wired to follow two conversations, or do two activities simultaneously. If there are two trains on adjacent tracks, you’ll register one, but not the other.” The third is simply a flight response—a tendency to run, which minimizes good judgement.

To each of these principles, Final Mile tailored a specific “intervention”. A few hundred metres from the Wadala station, Krishnamurthy points to sequences of railway sleepers painted a bright yellow. “That helps your brain get a better idea of distances and how fast a train is covering them, which helps you judge its speed,” he says.

Shortly thereafter, a gaggle of schoolchildren, absorbed in conversation, crosses the tracks, prime material for the Cocktail Party Effect. “So we installed whistle boards just around the bend, telling the motormen to honk,” Krishnamurthy says. Even the honk is carefully calibrated: Two short, rapid honks instead of one long one, because that intrudes into a listener’s consciousness much more effectively.

The first few whistle signs that Final Mile put up—regulation boards made of metal— were promptly stolen. “So we had to create a signboard out of something not worth stealing,” Krishnamurthy laughs. “We had to do an intervention on the intervention!”

At the station itself, Krishnamurthy points to the final intervention—a three-panel photo of a rather alarmed man being gradually run over by a locomotive. This morbid frieze is positioned exactly at the two points where the temptation to cross is powerful, designed to subtly counter the flight response.
“It’s intended to elicit an appropriate emotional memory,” Krishnamurthy says. “We look to faces to figure out situations, so his face is central. We repeated the image, because it catches the eye. And it has to be life-size, not larger than life, because it shouldn’t intrude into the conscious. It should work at an unconscious level.”

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This entry was posted on Thursday, March 25th, 2010 at 7:36 am and is filed under Risk, Traffic safety. 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.

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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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