Brain science + wit = safer driving: Goal behind Virginia highway digital message boards

Which safety message would highway drivers be more receptive to: a permanent sign posted alongside the interstate, or a digital message board reading “Driving fast and furious? That’s Ludacris”?

Here’s an example of a VDOT sign. (Courtesy VDOT)

The Virginia Department of Transportation says there’s scientific evidence the digital messages above its interstates are proving to be more memorable and effective.

“All the messages are aimed at safe driving habits and reducing crashes and fatalities on Virginia’s roads,” VDOT Chief Deputy Commissioner Rob Cary told the Commonwealth Transportation Board, while making a presentation Tuesday.

Cary said the goal is to connect with drivers and change their behaviors, with messages that include rhymes, holiday themes and pop culture references.

“For example, during Super Bowl weekend, we posted a message that was  ‘Don’t fumble your life away. Drive sober,'” said Cary. “Clearly, some people might tend to drink around the Super Bowl, and we don’t want people drinking and driving.”

Hoping to quantify whether the messages registered and stuck with drivers, VDOT worked with the Virginia Tech Cognitive Research Team, which outfitted test participants with a brain mapping helmet, and showed them tailored safety messages.

“We analyzed blood flow in the brain,” Cary said. “What it’s really measuring was increased blood flow to the prefrontal cortex,” which indicates to researchers that someone is paying attention.

A participant in VDOT’s study on which signs are most effective. (Courtesy VDOT)

“The most memorable safety themes are distracted driving and drinking and driving,” Cary said.

The least effective references were to sports, according to the VDOT presentation.

Signs have different levels of effectiveness. (Courtesy VDOT)

When VDOT’s safety slogans are amplified on Twitter, @VaDOT and @VaDOTNOVA — especially when tweets go viral — Cary said the agency’s safety message reaches many more people than the drivers passing under the message boards.

While the messaging is proving to be effective in getting people’s attention, Cary said the challenge continues to be getting drivers to change their behaviors.

Virginia, like many states in the country, saw an increase in crashes and deaths in 2020, in part because lower traffic volumes due to the pandemic resulted in higher speeds.

Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a reporter at WTOP since 1997. Through the years, Neal has covered many of the crimes and trials that have gripped the region. Neal's been pleased to receive awards over the years for hard news, feature reporting, use of sound and sports.

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