CONTACTTRAFFICABOUT TOM VANDERBILTOTHER WRITING CONTACT ABOUT THE BOOK

I Respect Your Right to Drive Like a Maniac Down This Street, But…

Since so many drivers seem to lack any other kind, Needham, Massachusetts is hoping to appeal to their “emotional intelligence,” reports the Boston Globe.

As is so often the case, the community in question is trying to get people to drive more slowly on neighborhood streets with schools and children. The typical signage seems to do squat. As the story notes, “The idea is that seeing a child’s handwriting and drawing will make parents relate to the sign in a way they never would with an impersonal version.” In other words, it’s not the voice of the impersonal state, but a child — and how many SUVs loaded with parents’ own offspring are barreling down that road?

Interestingly, this idea did not stem from traffic engineers. Writs the Globe: “She said the novel approach came out of a conference she attended last year, when Daniel Pink, best-selling author of “A Whole New Mind,” talked about using so-called right-brain skills like empathy to communicate more effectively – and ultimately to be more successful.”

Pink himself “came upon the idea by accident while visiting a New York museum with his wife and three young children. The family took a break from touring to get something to eat at the museum cafeteria. ‘The line is just outrageously long,’ Pink recalled. ‘And I’m all stressed out about that because we don’t have a lot of time, and I don’t want to waste my time at this beautiful museum waiting for a grilled cheese sandwich.” Then he saw a sign that read, “Don’t worry. This line moves really quickly.’ Pink said he immediately felt much calmer and it made his entire experience at the museum better.’

This may all be a bit too soft for the New Yorker raised on “Don’t Even THINK of Parking Here” and its ilk. And I’m not sure about the legibility of those signs (then again, legibility is only half the issue). But I’m all for unconventional approaches, and this one seems an interesting parallel with the U.K.’s “road witch” trials and David Engwicht’s “intrigue and uncertainty” ethos, the idea that the “outdoor living room” of a residential street, one that shows signs of life, might be as or more effective than anonymous, disregarded signs. I’m also not sure about the ‘novelty effect,’ but in any case it will be interesting to see how it plays out (the town is trying the ’empathetic’ signage for other purposes, as well). I like the idea of simply posting images of huge sets of eyes with any traffic message, as psychological experiments have shown how eye contact (not necessarily “real” eye contact) improves cooperation.

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. How can a person drive in such an environment without the understanding that they are in the presence of unpredictability? (of course, with issues of speed, one tends to only hear from drivers about how they feel they are traveling at a speed that is safe for them, without taking into account the ethical dimension of how their behavior raises the risks to others). To take the analogy further, how many “children” do we see out on the roads, hostile to being reigned in, thinking that parental rules don’t apply to them, selfish to the extreme (swap a toddler’s crying for the horn), angry when their toys are taken away (how dare you remove parking spots!).

What do y’all think — more carrot, less stick? Or the reverse? Or a whole new way of thinking about the problem?

This entry was posted on Tuesday, February 10th, 2009 at 10:13 am and is filed under Traffic Culture, Traffic Psychology, Traffic Signs. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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Traffic Tom Vanderbilt

How We Drive is the companion blog to Tom Vanderbilt’s New York Times bestselling book, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), published by Alfred A. Knopf in the U.S. and Canada, Penguin in the U.K, and in languages other than English by a number of other fine publishers worldwide.

Please send tips, news, research papers, links, photos (bad road signs, outrageous bumper stickers, spectacularly awful acts of driving or parking or anything traffic-related), or ideas for my Slate.com Transport column to me at: info@howwedrive.com.

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