Japan has its own shapes for some traffic signs but perhaps not for long

Japanese officials are considering changing the shape of their traffic signs to better match the design of signs elsewhere in the world:

Japan is considering a revamp of its stop signs to suit easily confused tourists, The Japan Times reported recently. Japan’s current signs are fun and different, but they’re also red triangles that look suspiciously like the yield signs in the U.S. and other nations…

The stop-sign makeover would not come cheap. The government estimates the bill for replacing every sign in Japan with a more “global” design would total 25 billion yen, or $214 million.

The triangular stop signs are one of the last vestiges of unique Japanese signage. In 2013, Tokyo began to switch from signs using “romaji”—English transliterations of Japanese words—to signs with straight-up English translations. The Geospatial Information Authority of Japan announced earlier this month that it would change the symbols on foreign maps to reflect representations used throughout the globe: an envelope for a post office, a stick figure in a bed for hotel, and a peaked white box with a cross in the middle for a hospital, among others.

Japan has historically gone against convention when it comes to signage. It’s not among the 64 countries party to the United Nations 1968 Convention on Road Signs and Signals, which lays out global rules on, well, traffic signs. According to the guidelines, a “stop” sign is either circular, “with a white or yellow ground and a red border,” or octagonal, “with a red ground bearing the word ‘STOP’ in white in English or in the language of the State concerned.”

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised but I am still fascinated: there are international conventions on road signs? Given the importance of driving around the world, this makes sense but it seems to be an odd signal of globalization: the exchange of goods and information is aided by the infrastructure of common road signs.

The only thing that might make this story even more fascinating would be some data on the consequences of having different road signs in Japan. How many accidents has this caused? Have their been prominent cases where tourists misinterpreted the signs?

Signs to slow down for children are not recommended

Despite the well intentioned efforts of parents, posting signs instructing drivers to slow down for children do not help:

While Smith’s actions came from a protective place, his efforts may be fruitless, as there’s little evidence to support the effectiveness of advisory signs in regard to changing driver behavior or making children safer. In fact, the National Cooperative Highway Research Program firmly discourages the use of signs that read “Caution — children at play” or “Slow — Children.” One reason, points out Slate, is common sense. “If the driver does not notice the characteristics of a neighborhood as they drive down the street, why would they notice a sign as they pass it, or remember it for more than a few seconds once they have passed it?” an engineer from an online forum noted on the website.

There’s also the possibility that a sign emphasizing the presence of children in one location may imply that an absence of warning would mean no kids are present in another. And finally, such warnings could falsely convey that the street is a play area. The same principle applies to neighborhood stop signs, which encourage drivers to actually speed up in between them.

One proposed solution:

“It largely comes down to awareness,” Janette Fennell, founder and president of KidsAndCars, a nonprofit safety organization, tells Yahoo Parenting. “Drivers often have an ‘It can’t happen to me’ mindset when speeding, and most people overestimate their driving skills.” But lowering the speed limit even a little helps reduce the number of accidents and increase the survival rate of victims, according to research published by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. “I’d estimate that a person is about 74 percent more likely to be killed if they’re struck by vehicles traveling at 30 mph than at 25 mph,” study co-author Brian Tefft told Wired.

Here is a better solution as even speed limits can only do so much: more road diets. In many places, streets are far too wide for what is needed for typical traffic. This gives drivers the impression that they have a margin of error. And, having nothing in their path – ranging from speed bumps to stop signs to parked cars – only contributes to driving faster. If you really want people to slow down when driving through residential neighborhoods, we should: (1) narrow streets, (2) have regular street parking, and (3) plant trees closer to the roadway. All of these things would give drivers more consistent indicators that they can’t drive as fast. Drivers may not like this as it feels more closed in and they have to pay attention more (will someone open a car door? How far do I get over if a car is coming from the opposite direction?) but it will slow them down.

Making these changes would take a major effort as many streets have been built extra-wide for decades. Yet, we have often privileged the car when designing roads and one of the consequences is faster driving and increased risk for pedestrians and others utilizing roadways.

A more radical solution that wouldn’t require changing many roads? Promoting driverless cars that closely control how fast vehicles move.

Does posting the number of highway deaths in Illinois lead to safer driving?

A columnist discusses the effects of signs on Illinois Tollways that post the number of automobile fatalities on area highways:

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.

A “children at play” sign as a symptom of a larger issue rather than the solution

In Traffic, Tom Vanderbilt argues that Americans rely on a lot of road signs even though there is little to no evidence that having more signs increases the safety of drivers and pedestrians. As an example, Vanderbilt looks at the “children at play” signs:

Despite the continued preponderance of “Children at Play” on streets across the land, it is no secret in the world of traffic engineering that “Children at Play” signs—termed, with subtle condescension, “advisory signs”—have been proven neither to change driver behavior nor to do anything to improve the safety of children in a traffic setting. The National Cooperative Highway Research Program, in its “Synthesis of Highway Practice No. 139,” sternly advises that “non-uniform signs such as “CAUTION—CHILDREN AT PLAY,” “SLOW—CHILDREN,” or similar legends should not be permitted on any roadway at any time.” Moreover, it warns that “the removal of any nonstandard signs should carry a high priority.”…

If the sign is so disliked by the profession charged with maintaining order and safety on our streets, why do we seem to see so many of them? In a word: Parents. Talk to a town engineer, and you’ll often get the sense it’s easier to put up a sign than to explain to local residents why the sign shouldn’t be put up. (This official notes that “Children at Play” signs are the second-most-common question he’s asked about at town meetings.) Residents have also been known to put up their own signs, perhaps using the DIY instructions provided by eHow (which notes, in a baseless assertion typical of the whole discussion, that “Notifying these drivers there are children at play may reduce your child’s risk”). States and municipalities are also free to sanction their own signs (hence the rise of “autistic child” traffic signs)…

One of the things that is known, thanks to peer-reviewed science, is that increased traffic speeds (and volumes) increase the risk of children’s injuries. But “Children at Play” signs are a symptom, rather than a cure—a sign of something larger that is out of whack, whether the lack of a pervasive safety culture in driving, a system that puts vehicular mobility ahead of neighborhood livability, or non-contextual street design. After all, it’s roads, not signs, that tell people how to drive. People clamoring for “Children at Play” signs are often living on residential streets that are inordinately wide, lacking any kind of calming obstacles (from trees to “bulb-outs”), perhaps having unnecessary center-line markings—three factors that will boost vehicle speed more than any sign will lower them.

So the signs are more of a band-aid to a larger problem which Vanderbilt discusses more in his book: streets and roads are generally designed in America for cars to go fast rather than as structures that also accommodate pedestrians and other neighborhood activities. Signs can’t do a whole lot to reduce the effects of this structure even though citizens, local officials, and some traffic engineers continue to aid their proliferation. In a car-obsessed culture, perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised by all of this: people want to be able to move quickly from place to place.

This all reminds me of the efforts of groups like the New Urbanists who suggest the solution is to redesign the streetscape so that the automobile is given a less prominent place. By putting houses and sidewalks closer to the street, planting trees near the roadway, allowing parking on the sides of streets, and narrowing the width of streets can reduce the speed of drivers and reduce accidents. Of course, one could go even further and remove all traffic signs altogether (see here and text plus pictures and video here).

I wonder if we could use Vanderbilt’s examples as evidence of a larger public discussion about the role of science versus other kinds of evidence. There may be a lot of research that suggests signs don’t help much but how does that science reach the typical suburban resident who is concerned about their kids playing near the street? If confronted with the sort of evidence that Vanderbilt provides, how would the typical suburban resident or official respond?

A new traffic control device: painting a picture of a child on the road

The battle to control speeders has a new weapon:

On Tuesday, the town [West Vancouver, Canada] unveiled a new way to persuade motorists to ease off the gas pedal in the vicinity of the École Pauline Johnson Elementary School: a 2-D image of a child playing, creating the illusion that the approaching driver will soon blast into a child.

According to Discover magazine, the pavement painting appears to rise up as the driver gets closer to it, reaching full 3-D realism at around 100 feet: “Its designers created the image to give drivers who travel at the street’s recommended 18 miles per hour (30 km per hour) enough time to stop before hitting Pavement Patty — acknowledging the spectacle before they continue to safely roll over her.”

I would be very curious to know how effective this is. While the article suggests that drivers may then be more prone to hit real children, drivers might also just eventually tune out the painting, much as they do with traffic signs.

Another school of thought would suggest measures like this painting are missing the point. What really should change are the structure and design of streets. If you want people to drive more safely, make roads narrower and include parked cars on both sides. Or, one could go as far as European traffic engineer Hans Monderman who advocated removing all traffic signs – since drivers ignore them much of the time anyway, having no signs might force them to pay more attention.