From the AER O&M Division newsletter, Summer 2011, Volume 17 Number 3
Are Area Warning Signs Effective?
Dr. Eugene Bourquin, COMS, CLVT, CI & CT
How often have you driven through a residential neighborhood and noticed a sign: BLIND CHILD AREA or SLOW - DEAF CHILD? Or on major thoroughfares, you may see large black and yellow letters that declare: SLOW SCHOOL FOR THE BLIND. Where I work, numerous signs are placed in an area that would otherwise be ideal for training, but signs virtually shout out BLIND PERSONS TRAINING AREA. Perhaps you have been asked to help have a new sign posted for a consumer. Across the US, signs such as these are ubiquitous. Well-meaning parents and school officials frequently request that signs be installed in neighborhoods and many municipalities have standardized the process for requesting and approving these types of area warning signs. But are these signs a good idea? Are they effective? Should orientation and mobility specialists recommend these warnings or advocate for requests made by consumers and their families?
The answers may be No. According to writer Tom Vanderbilt (2008) in his book Traffic: Why we drive the way we do (and what it says about us), "'Children at Play' signs have not been shown to reduce speeds or accidents . . . " (p. 186). In order for a warning sign to work, it would need to involuntarily draw attention away from driving and to the sign. However, Vanderbilt also reported: "[D]rivers routinely see signs warning of deer crossings (in the United States) or elephant crossings (in Sri Lanka) or camel signs (in Tunisia). It is difficult to say what is going on in the mind of a driver whenever he or she sees a deer or elephant or camel crossing sign, but studies have shown that most drivers do not change their speed at all. A Colorado trial featured a special animated sign . . . [Engineers presumed] the sign would draw more attention and heightened driver awareness. There were actually more deer killed when the sign was activated . . ." (p. 186).
The Kansas DOT (n.d.) seems unambiguous in their opinion.
The main reasons the City of Wichita does not generally install "Autistic Child," "Blind Child," Deaf Child," or "Children at Play" signs are:
These signs do not describe where the child might be. Most streets within a residential area have children who react in the same way, and each driver must be aware of all children in a neighborhood environment.
These signs provide parents and children with a false sense of security that their children are safe when playing in or near the street.
When the novelty of such a sign wears off, the signs no longer attract the attention of regular passersby.
Unique or unusual warning signs are a target for vandals and souvenir hunters and have a high replacement cost.
Unique message signs have no legal meaning or established precedent for use in basic traffic engineering references.
Their use is discouraged because of both the lack of proven effectiveness and undesirable liability exposure. (para. 1-6)
The DOT also noted that the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) recommends that warning signs be kept to a minimum, because as they proliferate it is likely that each sign becomes less effective. Further, The National Cooperative Highway Research Program (NCHRP) Synthesis of Highway Practice No. 186: Supplemental Advance Warning Devices (1993) stated that these signs are "not considered effective" and studies of "Children at Play" signs have found no reductions on crash statistics and no effect on the speed of vehicles.
All this noted, there has not been a well-controlled empirical study of blind child area signage. We have only professional opinion and tangential evidence. When and if we are approached to advocate for a warning sign we can respond with the facts. Traffic professionals do not generally recommend these signs and there is no evidence that supports a sign will make a child safer. We can also anticipate that parents and others may remain unconvinced. "Widespread public faith in traffic signs to provide protection and parental concern for children's safety results in frequent requests for this type of signage" (Shawnee, 2011, para. 2). The best approach may be education and training for consumers, families, agencies, and schools.
Kansas DOT (n.d.). Why Signs Are Not Installed. Retrieved from http://www.wichita.gov/NR/rdonlyres/1D3233A9-9AAD-4F4B-850F-520D430C37D9/0/BrochureChildrenatPlaySigns.pdf