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How safe are the electronic safety signs on Texas highways?

The study revealed electronic dynamic message signs that display certain numbers may contribute to a slight increase in crashes.

AUSTIN, Texas — Electronic signs that flash messages in bright lights at drivers on state highways may be contributing to a slight increase in crashes, according to a study.

When the signs display fatality counts, the researchers found that traffic crashes increased by 8% in the approximately six miles after the signs. They compared crash data over a 7-year period, from 2010 to 2017, in Texas.

They also found that when the numbers got larger and when the road network was more complex, crashes increased even more.

The study was recently reviewed by Texas A&M Transportation Institute leaders.

“We've got to make sure that … we don't put so much information on these traffic safety messages that it creates situations where drivers are distracted ... and they're not paying enough attention to the roadway in front of them,” said Gerald Ullman, a senior research engineer at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute.

According to the Texas Department of Transportation, there are 1,100 electronic dynamic message signs across the state. Eighty-four of them are in the Austin area.

“When you get to be those large numbers, we have a hard time as humans, you know, just figuring out what to do with them, what they mean and that kind of thing ... particularly in a context of a dynamic message sign, which are traffic control devices that we are accustomed to as drivers for looking for information that we're supposed to respond to,” Ullman said.

In response to the study, TxDOT shared this statement:

“The real issues around traffic fatalities in Texas are speed, distracted driving, impaired driving and people not wearing seat belts. We appreciate any focus on safety and the critical need to inspire drivers to make the best decisions behind the wheel. In relation to this particular study, there are too many unknowns to draw any firm conclusions, to include assumptions made by the study authors regarding driver psychology and behavior.

"We continually evaluate the effectiveness of our safety messages, and for quite some time now, we have not shared fatality numbers on the dynamic messaging signs (DMS). We look for every way to make our roads as safe as possible, and to use effective measures to remind drivers that most of the time they have the power in their hands to help prevent fatalities on our roadways.”

The Federal Highway Administration in early 2021 published a ruling that discouraged transportation agencies from posting statistics, like fatality numbers, on the electronic signs.

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