The first time I saw one of those grim Illinois expressway signs was in 2012. I was merrily driving to the family farm in Indiana to visit my mom when I spotted a roadside sign dishing a little shock and awe to commuters and vacationers. There was something cold about the little electric bulbs in the sign above my expressway lane letting me know: “679 TRAFFIC DEATHS THIS YEAR.”
It made me think…
That’s precisely what the sign was meant to do. While many states were seeing fewer traffic fatalities during the summer of 2012, Illinois was seeing a substantial increase in the number of people killed on Illinois roads in the first half of that year. After the Illinois Department of Transportation started posting a running total of the dead in July, the last half of 2012 saw fewer fatalities than the last half of sign-free 2011.
Still, the number of fatalities went up in 2012, from 918 to 957. Last year, with those same signs updating our death toll daily and urging us to drive more safely, our fatalities inched higher again, to 973.
This evidence suggests the signs had little effect. This would line up with research that suggests drivers don’t pay all that much attention to road signs; hence, the suggestion that perhaps no signs might even be better. Indeed, the Illinois Department of Transportation has moved on to other strategies to reduce traffic deaths:
Michael Rooker, the actor who played Merle Dixon on TV’s “The Walking Dead,” stars in the latest IDOT safety campaign, a series of videos at thedrivingdeadseries.com and Facebook posts titled “The Driving Dead.” The postings don’t have anything close to the power of watching a young mother of two die while pinned in her car, but perhaps they will prove more effective than the road signs. The catchphrase of “The Driving Dead” gives those behind the wheel a new way of thinking about driving.
I would be curious to know whether IDOT is pursuing these strategies based on evidence that suggest they work or the agency is mounting what they think might work and/or what is publicly visible. Driving is a dangerous activity – one of the most dangerous the average person will partake in each day – and you would want solutions that work rather than guesses.