An Attempt to Create Empathy in Drivers

One of the issues that continually bedevils the members of the Streetsblog Network is how to get drivers to slow down and pay attention.

bostonglobe.jpgPhoto by Michele McDonald of the Boston Globe via How We Drive.

Tom Vanderbilt, author of the book Traffic and keeper of the How We Drive blog, writes about one such effort in the community of Needham, MA. As the Boston Globe reports, Needham is posting signs in school zones that feature a child’s drawings and hand-written plea to "Slow Down!!! You May Hurt the Future."

Vanderbilt has this to say:

Part of me can’t help but to look at those “child-like” signs, meant to engender feelings of empathy for the nearby children, and think they almost say more about the drivers. We often hear about how children are “unpredictable” and do things like cross at inappropriate moments, but
to look at the behavior of drivers through these school areas it is they who seem to be behaving without the appropriate amount of control and risk-awareness.

Do you think signs like the ones in Needham might trigger better behavior in otherwise apathetic drivers? Or do you agree with one of Vanderbilt’s commenters, who wrote: "These signs are more effective at appealing to people’s better natures, but not everyone HAS a better nature. We need bollards here in Mass."

Also today on the network: Transportation for America has a handy table comparing the House and Senate transportation stimulus proposals; Hub and Spokes reports on how stimulus funds might pay for transit operating costs in the Twin Cities; and The Overhead Wire has some thoughts on Obama’s sprawl pronouncement, which got the network so excited yesterday.

  • Doug

    Sorry to be contrarian, but I don’t think signs like these work. Perhaps they are necessary in school zones to protect kids, but they have the overall effect of reducing cycling to something that’s done by children. Until government and law enforcement give cyclists the status, respect and privilege afforded drivers through infrastructure investment and equal application of the law, no amount of cute signs will help.

    Plus, the sign looks like its writing is so small that it would be nearly impossible to read at any speed above five miles per hour. Also, they probably would only work for people who drive by the school on a regular basis, but then again, those people would probably be used to having to slow down for kids anyway, with or without a sign.

  • Doug

    I should add “and walking” to the idea of things that are done by children, since clearly the signs are meant to bring attention to kids on foot around the school.

  • Automatic machine gun turrets that take out speeding drivers is whats needed.

    All joking aside, I don’t know if you heard but a man, walking with his daughter (who is attending Seton Hall) was mowed down and killed at the intersection of South Orange Ave & Vose Ave in South Orange on Monday by a hit&run driver. The driver was later caught at least. This HOMICIDE happened in the downtown area of the village even though it has some of the best traffic calming and streetscape features found anywhere in New Jersey. The victim was hit so hard and fast that he died within minutes of reaching the hospital.

    What else can you do when even good engineering doesn’t work?

  • That’s awful. People drive too fast coming down the hill from the Reservation on South Orange Avenue, I know, but I would’ve thought this would be far enough into town that people would have slowed down. Just terrible.

  • A guy in an SUV nearly crashed into three cyclists after running a red light and speeding on the wrong side of the road down on Chrystie by the Manhattan Bridge the other night. When two of the cyclists confronted him, not only did he try crash his car into one of them (again), he claimed that they were riding somewhere they didn’t belong. The cyclists pointed out that his truck was now stopped directly over a bicycle logo painted on the pavement. He then claimed to be a “New York prosecutor” but refused to hand over any identifying credentials. His tough act disappeared as soon as he actually stepped out of his truck. In fact, he started whining and nearly crying at the “intimidation” of the cyclists, who pointed out that if anything was intimidating, it was a speeding, red light-running SUV on the wrong side of the double-yellow (driven by someone claiming to be charged with upholding the law).

    The point of the story is that it may be impossible to create empathy when the physical imbalance of pedestrians/cyclists versus cars is so skewed. Maybe punishment for traffic violations should be mandatory Frogger: you nearly run over a pedestrian, you have to cross Queens Blvd; you menace a cyclist in your car, you have to ride a bike to work the next day.

  • John

    I don’t think that signs like these aren’t going to do much. Drivers who are already attentive and courteous will pay attention, but they’re not the drivers you have to worry about.

    I agree these stories are rather anecdotal, but I think they shed some light on how antisocial and reckless some drivers are. I got into the car with a coworker as we were going off site for lunch. He blew through a 4-way stop, but I chalked it up to my imagination. He blew through the next one. I said something to him. He said that as long as the other cars stopped he saw no reason why he should have to stop, and besides, the 4-way stops were on company property so the police couldn’t cite him. He then went into an anti-school zone rant saying they were unconstitutional as they protected only certain classes of citizens (actually they protect everyone in the school zone, not just children). He bragged he has never obeyed school zone speed limits and has never been caught.

    I know someone else who has said he should be allowed to drive 80 mph through his neighborhood and if any kids get run over it serves them right for getting in his way. Yes, those were his words. And he even has a toddler himself. I wonder if his tune would change if his child was hit by a car?

    I don’t think any signs would change these two idiots. I think what we need is strict traffic law enforcement.

  • Doug

    If small town and city governments stepped up traffic enforcement, they could probably make enough money to make up for some of the budget shortfalls they are facing. That would do more to change behavior than cute signs.

  • Rhywun

    If small town and city governments stepped up traffic enforcement

    Sure… and then they’ll be accused of using traffic enforcement solely for revenue, there’ll be a public outrage, and things will go back to normal (i.e. little to no enforcement of traffic rules).

  • ryan

    A similar project accompanied a mural by Groundswell, Transportation Alternatives, and Visual Resistance a few years back. Good way to raise awareness and build power for better street design and enforcement.

  • What we need is not more traffic enforcement but a shift in traffic enforcement from interstate highways to surface streets. In the city of Richmond, I have yet to see a single instance of speed enforcement in any of the areas where pedestrian and cyclist density is high and where drivers regularly significantly disregard limits. Yet it is common to see speed enforcement on interstates far from where there are any people being directly threatened by exceeding the speed limit. These priorities are outrageous. A shift in enforcement wouldn’t require additional resources but merely an appropriate reallocation of resources.

  • You need traffic calming devices, such as speed humps or speed cushions.

  • Larry Littlefield

    What I continue to believe would have a real impact is having the car radio play one of a series of public service announcements every time someone starts a motor vehicle.

    There may be a population that will kill someone with their auto and be fine with it, but it is small. For most that would be a devastating thing to happen — but not something anyone thinks about before it does.

    The reminders would force people to confront the possibilities. One might even require those who kill or injure someone else in a collision, or themselves, to record the announcements, giving the relative of the victims a chance to speak also.

  • Ian Turner

    The bollards vs. signage question is rather a false dichotomy. Neither is a panacea, and either or both may improve the safety situation.

    As for the effectiveness of this type of signage, it may or may not have a difference in the short or long term, but it’s very difficult to tell without experimental data. If there’s one thing we’ve learned about street safety, it’s that reality is often counterintuitive.

  • John

    I think Doug is spot-on. Signs – whether the cute variety or the MUTCD standard – are ineffective without consistent police enforcement. And the lettering on those particular signs looks too small for drivers to read. Looks like a waste of aluminum to me.

  • compassionate drivers already slow down for kids and bikers and such. you are attempting to appeal to the compassion of people who don’t have any. you can only hope to force them to play nice by making the consequences for their actions have at least some semblance of parity with the action. not only that, DRIVERS’ EYES ARE SUPPOSED TO BE ON THE ROAD and what’s on/in it and not signs begging them to be nice.

    as it stands, the laws regarding this are either pathetic, nonexistent, or not enforced. any one of us can get our asses mowed down without any consequences for the offending driver other than a civil case. and by “any one of us’ i mean anybody, including drivers who are walking around outside their vehicles, because we are all pedestrians at some point in time and we all deserve proper treatment.

    people will always break laws, but severe penalties may at least lead to a reduction in incidents like the recent one in queens.

  • Doug S

    The latest pedstrian death horror. A man dragged 17 miles thru the city by a van after being a struck by an SUV. The police see no evidence of criminality:

  • James

    This is a nice gesture but ineffective. As Tom Vanderbilt says in “Traffic”, “we struggle to stay human while driving”. People who give a damn are already driving slower to begin with. The others need to be dealt with via enforcement, not emotion-based appeals. Enforcement, enforcement, enforcement. We will reach a point one day when the mass installation of automated speed cameras is socially acceptable and when that day comes, economics 101 says that the speeding problem will take care of itself. Not a day before this will anything change.

  • Enforcement of parking regulations earns money, but enforcement of moving violations does not pay for itself and is expensive – which is why we will never get all the enforcement we need.

    For now, traffic-calming devices are the only affordable solution.

    At some point, we might have GPS based devices that let us identify cars that are speeding and ticket them automatically.

  • Omri

    People speed because they can do it safely. If going 40 threatened your body work, you wouldn’t do it. The reason people in Holland don’t speed is because the bollards nail you on the turns.

  • T B

    Here’s a photo of another sign like the one in that image –

  • I’m confused why we’d bleat about speed cameras and GPS when we could do it with bollards and chicanes.

    Why give the state extra tools of oppression? They’re just going to be aimed down our throats eventually.

    Good liberals should be advocating for solutions by design, not by policing. By now we should have learned that the police aren’t necessarily our friends.


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