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


The Virginia Department of Transportation says there is science behind the use of digital message boards, which combine clever slogans with safety tips.

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

Here is an example of a VDOT symbol. (courtesy VDOT)

The Virginia Department of Transportation says there is scientific evidence that digital messages above its interstate are proving more memorable and effective.

“All messages are aimed at safe driving habits and reducing accidents and deaths on Virginia’s roads,” VDOT Chief Deputy Commissioner Rob Carey said in a presentation Tuesday.

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

“For example, during Super Bowl weekend, we posted a message saying ‘Don’t take your life away. Drive sober,'” Carey said. “Obviously, some people drink around the Super Bowl, and We don’t want people to drive under the influence of alcohol.”



Hoping to determine whether messages registered and stuck near drivers, VDOT worked with a Virginia Tech cognitive research team, which outfitted test participants with brain amping helmets, and showed them safety messages.

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

A participant in the study of VDOT on which indications are most effective. (courtesy VDOT)

“The most memorable safety topics are distracted driving and drinking and driving,” Carey said.

According to the VDOT presentation, the least effective were references to the game.

There are different levels of effectiveness of signals. (courtesy VDOT)

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

While the message is proving effective in getting people’s attention, Carey said the challenge continues for drivers to change their behaviour.

Virginia, like many states in the country, saw an increase in accidents and deaths in 2020, partly because of the pandemic causing low traffic and high speeds.



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