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Are billboards driving us to distraction?

There's a billboard up ahead, a roadside sign full of language and imagery. Next stop: the emotionally distracted zone.
One University of Alberta researcher has discovered that language used on billboards can provoke an emotional response that affects our driving abilities. 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 says that although plenty of literature exists on road rage, none of it deals with external emotional stimuli. 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. "I wanted to see whether the results would carry over in driving—would we also find more distracted performance in driving?—and we did see that."

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

"There have been studies showing that when you're positively stimulated, your attention broadens, so you perform better when you're in a happy mood," said Chan. "In my results, we also saw that when we looked at the reaction-time data in response to target words, participants actually responded faster in the positive block than in the negative block."

Chan says a precedent already exists Down Under for dealing with this type of distraction, but some places may be harder to convince than others.

"In Australia they have really strict billboard criteria, but in the United States it's less so," she said. "When you're driving in Las Vegas, you'll see a bunch of profane billboards. There are also some really graphic anti-smoking billboards around."

Chan contends that emotional distraction while driving may come from anything from music to news to conversations, so it would be hard to legislate against those types of factors. 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 says, 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.

"Any kind of distraction is risky when you're driving. But there would appear to be a larger risk when it comes to emotional stimuli."

Jamie Hanlon | EurekAlert!
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