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Risque billboards really can cause traffic accidents, researchers have found. Drivers dramatically alter their speed depending on the kind of billboard they are passing, a team at the University of Alberta say.
They say even the wording of giant roadside advertisements can have a dramatic effect on drivers’ speed.
“Driver distraction is estimated to be one of the leading causes of motor vehicle accidents,” the team say. “However, little is known about the role of emotional distraction on driving, despite evidence that attention is highly biased toward emotion.”
In a driving simulation study carried out on University of Alberta students, researchers Michelle Chan and Anthony Singhal found that drivers passing signs with negative words, such as “abuse”, “stress”, “prison” or “war”, tended afterwards to slow down and drift from their lane.
POSITIVE = SPEED
Drivers passing signs with positive words like “cash”, “fame”, “sex” and “win” did the opposite, speeding up on the simulated road.
“There have been studies showing that when you’re positively stimulated, your attention broadens, so you perform better when you’re in a happy mood,” said Chan.
“In my results, we also saw that when we looked at the reaction-time data in response to target words, participants responded faster in the positive block than in the negative block.”
Participants drove through one of three scenarios that exposed them to 20 billboards on the course. Each billboard contained blocks of words that were positive, negative or neutral in nature.
They were also tested for response by having to push a button on the steering wheel when they encountered a target word.
“Studies have shown that when subjects see an emotional stimulus as opposed to a neutral one, they’re slower in making reaction time responses, and they’re slower when doing a visual search,” said Chan.
“I wanted to see whether the results would carry over in driving – would we also find more distracted performance in driving? – and we did see that.”
Chan said the results could have implications for advertisers. Some countries have been limiting what may be shown.
“Australia has strict billboard criteria, but in the US it’s less so,” she said.
“When you’re driving in Las Vegas, you’ll see a bunch of profane billboards.There are also some really graphic anti-smoking billboards around.”
Chan contends that emotional distraction while driving may come from anything from music to news to conversations, so it would be hard to legislate against those types of factors.
Self-regulation on the images and language marketers use on billboards could be one way to reduce potential for emotionally related incidents.
Ultimately, Chan says, drivers need to take responsibility for their actions behind the wheel, even if it means reducing stimuli such as talking or listening to the radio.
“Any kind of distraction is risky when you’re driving. But there would appear to be a larger risk when it comes to emotional stimuli.” – Daily Mail