November 15


Turn That Brain On – Changing Driving Habits

By Mike Spack

November 15, 2016

driving habits, traffic habits, traffic signal

Guest Post by Bryant Ficek, PE, PTOE, Vice President at Spack Consulting.

Habit – a routine of behavior repeated regularly and tends to occur subconsciously, a fixed way of thinking acquired through repetition.

Habits are ingrained into everything we do. Little steps that we no longer actively think about as we go about completing larger tasks. For instance, when you walk into a room do you think about hitting the switch to turn on the lights or does your arm automatically react to the dark room? Or better related to traffic, how often do you think about the route you drive to work? Ever started driving to a function on the weekend only to realize ten minutes later you’re halfway to work and nowhere near your actual destination?

As defined above, habits allow multiple things to happen subconsciously so we can focus our brainpower on more important matters. If we had to actively remember to breathe every minute or blink our eyes, we would be thinking about very little else.

Many habits form simply as the reaction to a stimulus. In essence, we’ve trained our bodies to react to something and respond accordingly. We see the red light and our foot moves from the gas pedal to the brake pedal.

Many years ago I helped design and install a new traffic signal for an existing all-way stop controlled intersection. We followed the guidelines at the time regarding installation and selected our day to change the control. After the signal went into operation, we noticed a curious behavior – many drivers approached the intersection, stopped at the line, waited a second or two, and then proceeded through the intersection regardless of whether their approach had a red or green light.

Thinking back about this incident, I can understand now that the driving habits were extremely strong. After many, many years of all-way stop control, drivers had created a habit – pass the tennis courts, slow and stop at the intersection, cursory look to each side to ensure no cars are coming, proceed through the intersection. Thankfully, no crashes occurred during this time and the phenomenon quickly passed. But that story has stuck with me, particularly how a strong habit can create an unsafe situation without the drivers even realizing what they are doing.

So what does this mean in terms of traffic engineering and our projects? First be aware of how ingrained habits can be and recognize that changes to a corridor or an intersection represents a big deal for those driving through it every day. The next step is trying to break someone out of their habit and then instilling a new habit to follow.

Most of the techniques we use to do this (red flags, orange warning signs, changeable message signs) are prescribed by the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD). Following those guidelines is essential. But also consider appropriate placement of any devices – where is a sign likely to attract the most eyeballs and snap a driver back to active thinking?

Habits, whether personal or professional, are difficult to change. As engineers we can help drivers make a smooth transition from old driving to new ones by giving some additional thought to have they view the world around them.

  • Great post. I have experienced similar situations. In 1975 when we first started using red arrows for left turn signals at MnDOT, we added regulatory signing that read “State Law No Turn on Red Arrow”. However, we got comments back that the red arrow itself was a contradictory message because arrows mean “go”. I asked why do they mean “go”? The reply was because they had always colored green. Some drivers had made a connection with color and shape that shouldn’t have been there. In addition, in 1975, yellow arrows had only been in use for a few years.

    For the first few years of the red arrows, there were some reported crashes where drivers failed to understand their meaning. But the long term benefits were: very expensive optically limited left turn signals were no longer needed and eventually no signs were needed. The all arrow left turn signal allowed for the eventual use of the flashing yellow arrow.

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    Mike Spack

    My mission is to help traffic engineers, transportation planners, and other transportation professionals improve our world.

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