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What Do You Do When the Traffic Light Turns Yellow?

2013 December 6
by Eric Horowitz

It’s possible that self-driving cars will obviate the need to ask questions about human decision-making behind the wheel, but until that happens there’s a lot of utility in figuring out why drivers drive in a certain way. Along these lines, a new study from a Alberto Megías and his collaborators at the University of Granada poses an interesting question: When a light turns yellow, what influences whether you decide to speed up or slow down?

Using a simulated environment, the researchers examined the rapid decisions participants made immediately after seeing advertisements with a picture that had a positive (e.g a romantic picture), negative (a mutilation), or neutral (a book) emotional valence. They found that negative emotions led to more cautious behavior.

Our results support the differential influence of emotional pictures (positive, negative, and neutral) displayed on central billboard advertisements. We found that a negative emotion aroused by these roadside advertisements made drivers brake more often than positive and neutral ones, which led drivers to be more cautious and to cross less often during a yellow traffic light. However, when drivers decided to cross the intersection, the negative advertisements increased their response time.

Megías believes that negative emotions make people more likely to envision negative outcomes, and that this makes them more cautious. While the study provides some evidence that it might be possible to induce certain behaviors through visual stimuli on the road, there are two things worth mentioning. First, it’s possible that running the red light, and thus avoiding the possibility that somebody rear-ends you, is the safer action. The point being that even if you could theoretically nudge people toward a certain behavior, it’s hard to know which behavior is optimal. Second, it’s probably good to be skeptical of any idea that hinges on drivers paying attention to distractions.

That said, I think eventually a kind of psychological urban design will become very popular. The opportunity to influence behavior through small changes to the environment is just too juicy of a low-hanging fruit. It could be 10, 20, or 50 years, but don’t be surprised if one day cities dedicate a lot of resources toward figuring out which small details can enhance public safety.
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Megías, A., Di Stasi, L.L., Maldonado, A., Catena, A., & Cándido, A. (2013). Emotion-laden stimuli influence our reactions to traffic lights Transportation Research Part F DOI: 10.1016/j.trf.2013.09.017

5 Responses leave one →
  1. dustin permalink
    December 6, 2013

    my dad always told me if its yellow speed up but i agree. if theres loud music playing or i got a car full of loud people i usually just mash it but if im alone headed home from work or something less stimulating i just wait it out.

  2. drew permalink
    December 6, 2013

    I think this article has a lot to do with the moral reasoning of a person. If somebody is in a rush then they will speed up. But if you’re just on your way casually and you speed up, you’re risking yourself and others. I’m sure my reasoning has changed a lot from when i was 16 to now for those yellow light moments.

  3. Adam permalink
    December 6, 2013

    I’ve never considered outside factors having an effect on whether or not a driver goes through a yellow light. I had previously always thought it was just a choice each individual made. This article is very interesting to me and I think it raises good questions about how to keep drivers safer on the roads. It does raise the question on whether or not driver should be paying attention to outside factors like advertisements and if certain ones should be used to target the drivers attention.

  4. Alberto Megías permalink
    March 25, 2014

    Thank you Eric Horowitz for writing about our paper!!!

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