Please Touch That Dial

I have a piece in the new issue of I.D. that considers what influence the visual displays of speedometers might have on our driving behavior. Story is here or after the jump…

Every time I drive my 2001 Volvo, I find myself staring at a design problem: the speedometer.

It’s not the placement, illumination, or typography. It’s the numbers. The maximum speed on the dial is 160 mph. I know from experience that this car, even with its turbo engine, doesn’t do anywhere near 160. It even begins to get a little wobbly around 90 mph—not that I’m at 90 very often.

So why is the maximum speed displayed more than twice the legal limit in the U.S. and almost twice what the car can handle? And what is this speedometer doing on a Volvo, a company whose heritage is predicated on safety?

Car companies actually have an ambivalent relationship with safe driving: One survey in Canada found that nearly half of all car ads depicted unsafe driving acts. I suppose that the speedometer’s high numbers are placed there to stimulate our imagination in the way that radio knobs allow us to crank up the volume far beyond the level where sound is distorted.

But even knowing that these numbers bear little relationship to reality, we’re affected by the visual display. No matter how fast we drive, the needle is always less than halfway up the dial, indicating there’s still plenty of room for acceleration. That remaining space may even goad us into testing the limits by going faster.

The speedometer presents an example of “choice architecture,” a coinage of University of Chicago professors Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler that refers to the way context can affect behavior. In their book Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness (Yale University Press, 2008), Sunstein and Thaler give the example of a school cafeteria in which administrators tried to encourage children to eat healthier food. It was found that simply by displaying the healthier stuff first on the lunch line, consumption of junk food was decreased by as much as 25 percent.

Would topping speedometers at, say, 100 mph influence the way we drive? This question was actually broached as long ago as Carter’s presidency, when the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration briefly enacted a cap of 85 mph on speedometers (with the speed limit of 55 mph marked). The measure was done for energy savings, not safety, but it was undone by the anti-regulatory Reagan Administration—one of whose first acts was to remove the solar panels that had been placed atop the White House.

Capping the speedometer would remove a theoretical and illegal max to test on public roads. Influenced by the so-called anchoring effect, people are induced to eat more when portion sizes are larger and to drink more when the range of beverage options is increased. (Many consumers eschew the biggest and smallest drink choices at fast-food restaurants, so companies have supersized their “large” choice, thus making the “medium” more palatable, even though it’s bigger than ever.) In the same way, the value of 160 on my speedometer has been shown to influence decision-making.

Even more troubling is the speedometer’s dumbness. The device gives a simple reading that lacks context. It tells speed, but it doesn’t convey other useful information. How does the car’s speed compare to the posted limit? How much time is saved by driving faster, and how does it compare to the added fatality risk of a crash (which rises exponentially at higher speeds)? What’s the minimum stopping distance at a certain speed? What is the fuel consumption (expressed in dollars per hour or some such) and rate of harmful emissions at one speed versus another? As the Prius’s dashboard monitor displaying fuel efficiency shows, when people receive live feedback about the consequences of their actions, they are more likely to change their behavior.

Stanford University researchers Manu Kumar and Taemie Kim have proposed a “dynamic speedometer” that would highlight the posted speed limit of whatever road you’re on. In simulator trials, they were able to reduce instances of unintentional speeding and convince subjects to drive more slowly in general. By adding the information previously mentioned, people might be “nudged” to make smarter decisions about their driving. For now, most don’t have a clue.

Tom Vanderbilt, a contributing editor at I.D., is the author of Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (And What It Says About Us) (Alfred A. Knopf, 2008).

This entry was posted on Saturday, October 18th, 2008 at 2:12 pm and is filed under Uncategorized. 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 Transport column to me at:

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Upcoming Talks

April 9, 2008.
California Office of Traffic Safety Summit
San Francisco, CA.

May 19, 2009
University of Minnesota Center for Transportation Studies
Bloomington, MN

June 23, 2009
Driving Assessment 2009
Big Sky, Montana

June 26, 2009
PRI World Congress
Rotterdam, The Netherlands

June 27, 2009
Day of Architecture
Utrecht, The Netherlands

July 13, 2009
Association of Transportation Safety Information Professionals (ATSIP)
Phoenix, AZ.

August 12-14
Texas Department of Transportation “Save a Life Summit”
San Antonio, Texas

September 2, 2009
Governors Highway Safety Association Annual Meeting
Savannah, Georgia

September 11, 2009
Oregon Transportation Summit
Portland, Oregon

October 8
Honda R&D Americas
Raymond, Ohio

October 10-11
INFORMS Roundtable
San Diego, CA

October 21, 2009
California State University-San Bernardino, Leonard Transportation Center
San Bernardino, CA

November 5
Southern New England Planning Association Planning Conference
Uncasville, Connecticut

January 6
Texas Transportation Forum
Austin, TX

January 19
Yale University
(with Donald Shoup; details to come)

Monday, February 22
Yale University School of Architecture
Eero Saarinen Lecture

Friday, March 19
University of Delaware
Delaware Center for Transportation

April 5-7
University of Utah
Salt Lake City
McMurrin Lectureship

April 19
International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association (Organization Management Workshop)
Austin, Texas

Monday, April 26
Edmonton Traffic Safety Conference
Edmonton, Canada

Monday, June 7
Canadian Association of Road Safety Professionals
Niagara Falls, Ontario

Wednesday, July 6
Fondo de Prevención Vial
Bogotá, Colombia

Tuesday, August 31
Royal Automobile Club
Perth, Australia

Wednesday, September 1
Australasian Road Safety Conference
Canberra, Australia

Wednesday, September 22

Wisconsin Department of Transportation’s
Traffic Incident Management Enhancement Program
Statewide Conference
Wisconsin Dells, WI

Wednesday, October 20
Rutgers University
Center for Advanced Infrastructure and Transportation
Piscataway, NJ

Tuesday, March 8, 2011
Ontario Injury Prevention Resource Centre
Injury Prevention Forum

Monday, May 2
Idaho Public Driver Education Conference
Boise, Idaho

Tuesday, June 2, 2011
California Association of Cities
Costa Mesa, California

Sunday, August 21, 2011
American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators
Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Wednesday, October 26, 2011
Attitudes: Iniciativa Social de Audi
Madrid, Spain

April 16, 2012
Institute for Sensible Transport Seminar
Gardens Theatre, QUT
Brisbane, Australia

April 17, 2012
Institute for Sensible Transport Seminar
Centennial Plaza, Sydney
Sydney, Australia

April 19, 2012
Institute for Sensible Transport Seminar
Melbourne Town Hall
Melbourne, Australia

January 30, 2013
University of Minnesota City Engineers Association Meeting
Minneapolis, MN

January 31, 2013
Metropolis and Mobile Life
School of Architecture, University of Toronto

February 22, 2013
ISL Engineering
Edmonton, Canada

March 1, 2013
Australian Road Summit
Melbourne, Australia

May 8, 2013
New York State Association of
Transportation Engineers
Rochester, NY

August 18, 2013 “Ingenuity” Conference
San Francisco, CA

September 26, 2013
TransComm 2013
(Meeting of American Association
of State Highway and Transportation
Officials’ Subcommittee on Transportation
Grand Rapids MI



October 2008

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