health

How Roadside Safety Signs Backfire—and Why Policymakers Don’t Notice

Interventions in health and safety often yield results that are the opposite of what policymakers were hoping for. Officials can take a science-based approach by measuring what really works instead of relying on gut intuitions.

You are driving along the highway and see an electronic sign that reads: “3,238 traffic deaths this year.” Do you think this reminder of roadside mortality would change how you drive? According to a recent, peer-reviewed study in Science, seeing that sign would make you more likely to crash. That’s ironic, given that the sign’s creators assumed it would make you safer.

The study, led by a pair of economists at the University of Toronto and University of Minnesota, examined seven years of traffic accident data from 880 electric highway sign locations in Texas, which experienced 4,480 fatalities in 2021. For one week of each month, the Texas Department of Transportation posts the latest fatality messages on signs along select traffic corridors as part of a safety campaign. Their logic is simple: Tell people to drive with care by reminding them of the dangers on the road.

But when the researchers looked at the data, they found that the number of crashes increased by 1.52 percent within three miles of these signs when compared with the same locations during the same month in previous years when signs did not show fatality information. That impact is similar to raising the speed limit by four miles or decreasing the number of highway troopers by 10 percent.

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Gleb Tsipursky
Dr. Gleb Tsipursky is an internationally recognized thought leader on a mission to protect leaders from dangerous judgment errors known as cognitive biases by developing the most effective decision-making strategies. A best-selling author, he wrote Resilience: Adapt and Plan for the New Abnormal of the COVID-19 Coronavirus Pandemic and Pro Truth: A Practical Plan for Putting Truth Back Into Politics. His expertise comes from over 20 years of consulting, coaching, and speaking and training as the CEO of Disaster Avoidance Experts, and over 15 years in academia as a behavioral economist and cognitive neuroscientist. He co-founded the Pro-Truth Pledge project.
Q&A with Holden Thorp: Finding Better Ways to Communicate Science

Leaps.org spoke with Holden Thorp, Editor-in-Chief of the prestigious Science family of journals, about ways to improve science journalism, the challenges faced by experts, the lab leak theory and much more.

Cameron Davidson

This month, Leaps.org had a chance to speak with Holden Thorp, Editor-in-Chief of the Science family of journals. We talked about the best ways to communicate science to the public, mistakes by public health officials during the pandemic, the lab leak theory, and bipartisanship for funding science research.

Before becoming editor of the Science journals, Thorp spent six years as provost of Washington University in St. Louis, where he is Rita Levi-Montalcini Distinguished University Professor and holds appointments in both chemistry and medicine. He joined Washington University after spending three decades at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he served as the UNC's 10th chancellor from 2008 through 2013.

A North Carolina native, Thorp earned a doctorate in chemistry in 1989 at the California Institute of Technology and completed postdoctoral work at Yale University. He is a fellow of the National Academy of Inventors and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Read his full bio here.

This conversation was lightly edited by Leaps.org for style and format.

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Matt Fuchs

Matt Fuchs is the editor-in-chief of Leaps.org. He is also a contributing reporter to the Washington Post and has written for the New York Times, Time Magazine, WIRED and the Washington Post Magazine, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @fuchswriter.

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Scientists Are Harnessing Sound Waves in Hopes of Treating Alzheimer’s

In 2010, a 67-year-old former executive assistant for a Fortune 500 company was diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment. By 2014, her doctors confirmed she had Alzheimer's disease.

As her disease progressed, she continued to live independently but wasn't able to drive anymore. Today, she can manage most of her everyday tasks, but her two daughters are considering a live-in caregiver. Despite her condition, the woman may represent a beacon of hope for the approximately 44 million people worldwide living with Alzheimer's disease. The now 74-year-old is among a small cadre of Alzheimer's patients who have undergone an experimental ultrasound procedure aimed at slowing cognitive decline.

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Stav Dimitropoulos
Stav Dimitropoulos's features have appeared in major outlets such as the BBC, National Geographic, Scientific American, Nature, Popular Mechanics, Science, Runner’s World, and more. Follow her on Facebook or Twitter @TheyCallMeStav.