Roadside billboards can distract drivers

Roadside billboards

Language used on billboards can provoke an emotional response that affects our driving abilities, a University of Alberta researcher has discovered.

And whether the words have a negative or positive connotation seems to determine whether the attention wanders or the foot gets heavier.

Lead study author Michelle Chan and her U of A co-author, psychology professor Anthony Singhal, devised an experiment using a driving simulator. Participants drove through one of three scenarios that exposed them to 20 billboards on the course; each billboard contained blocks of words that were positive, negative or neutral in nature. They were also tested for response by having to push a button on the steering wheel when they encountered a target word.

"Studies have shown that when subjects see an emotional stimulus as opposed to a neutral one, they're slower in making reaction time responses and they're slower when doing a visual search," said Chan.

The results carry over in driving—as researchers saw more distracted performance in driving.

Emotionally charged words affected the subjects' driving focus, something that may make driving in real conditions hazardous.

Chan said that subjects who viewed the negative words decreased travelling speed when passing the signs and tended to drift and veer from their lane. Conversely, drivers viewing the words with positive connotations sped up when passing the signs—a response the researchers said supported other research.

Self-regulation on the images and language marketers use on billboards could be one way to reduce potential for emotionally related vehicular incidents.

Ultimately, she said, drivers need to take responsibility for their actions behind the wheel, even if it meets reducing the usual driving stimuli such as talking or listening to the radio.

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