The Magic Words to Hopefully Unclog the Left Lane

We’ve been stuck behind them, muttered about them. We’ve sometimes yelled. Why, we’ve wondered, won’t someone do something about the slug trespassing in the left lane?

While 29 states have laws directed at left-lane lingerers—those who drive in the left lane rather than use it for passing (or exiting) only—the laws remain inadequately enforced. As a result, faster drivers are often left directing something other than toothless laws at offenders. Hanging out in the left lane can trigger fellow drivers to the point of road rage. A 2016 AAA study found that nearly 80 percent of drivers reported feelings of anger and aggression when slow drivers wouldn’t get out of the left lane, and 51 percent said they “purposefully tailgated.”

If the ire of their fellow travelers won’t move them over, what will? That’s the challenge faced across the country by the people who try to shape driving behaviors. “We can’t make people drive well,” said Matt Bruning of the Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT), “but [if] we can get them to think about driving well, that’s a win.”

To help get the message out about left-lane laws, state departments of transportation like Bruning’s are tackling safety issues with a little bit of kitsch. “Camp in our state parks, not in the left lane” and variations on that theme have become popular digital billboard messages flashed at drivers from Ohio to Idaho. “It was a huge hit, huge hit,” said Bruning when ODOT began posting the camping message on the state’s digital overpass signs in September 2018.

While there is federally standardized language for highway signs that addresses left-lane driving, it might not be as effective as it could be. Ryan P. Jacobson, associate professor of organizational behavior at the University of New Mexico, believes that a “Slower traffic keep right” message is open to interpretation. “Keep right except to pass” is better, he said, because it’s a simple directive.

Looking to make a greater impact and move beyond standard road signs, state DOTs have begun toying with the digital message boards found above and alongside highways. They began pushing out original, sometimes funny messages, including the one about camping. Earlier this year, Alabama rolled out a coronavirus-related message: “Don’t hoard the left lane or the toilet paper.”

Relying on messaging to get people to do something they may not fundamentally agree with, however, is a delicate balance of just enough but not too much. In the case of highway signs, Lily Bernheimer, author of The Shaping of Us: How Everyday Spaces Structure Our Lives, Behavior, and Well-Being, says message writers need to keep “the petrified wood principle” in mind. Researchers studying why visitors to the Petrified Forest National Park in eastern Arizona ignored signs asking them not to remove wood chips were perplexed until they realized that the usual “join the flock” messages were backfiring. Signs that read, “Many past visitors have removed petrified wood from the park, changing the state of the petrified forest” actually encouraged visitors to steal the wood. When signs were rewritten to read, “Please don’t remove the petrified wood chips,” fewer people stole them. On highways, Bernheimer says a “join the flock” message is the right approach to getting people out of the left lane.

Then it takes time.

“The behaviors that we’re trying to impact aren’t things that you’re going to be able to measure year to year or even five years,” said Tracey Bramble, information specialist with Iowa DOT. “It took 10 to 12 to 15 years to get a seatbelt adoption rate in Iowa.” Now, Bramble says, 93 percent of the state’s drivers use seatbelts, up from 86 percent in 2004, the year before they began a messaging campaign. In 1985, the year before Iowa’s seatbelt law first went into effect, usage was 18 percent. Willy Sorenson, traffic and safety engineer at IDOT, said, “Over time, when culture changes, driver behavior will change.”

Twice a year, Bramble and Sorenson sit down for marathon writing sessions, rewarding themselves with chocolates if they craft something especially clever. They pen 52 original messages a year for Iowa’s digital signs, some of which target left-lane driving. “We have learned over time that we cannot start the message with the word ‘don’t,'” Sorenson said, “because it causes ‘psychological reactance.’ It’s a social-science term that means when told not to do something, a certain percentage of the population responds automatically with, ‘I’m doing that.'”

While Bramble, Sorenson, and their colleagues in states across the country work to develop messages that will change driver behaviors—the most famous example might be the “Click it or ticket” seatbelt campaign—Sorenson said, “We don’t really know what part of those campaigns work. Is it the sign? The words in the message? Is it the law behind the message? Is it the enforcement?” It’s probably all of the above.

Sorenson points to the stop sign, which is universally recognized and works without much enforcement (although threat of enforcement is always there). The message is unambiguous, such as “Do not enter” and “Wrong way.”

The work gets tricky when there’s ambiguity. And on the road, that ambiguity often mixes with anonymity. “When whizzing along the freeway, shielded from others’ views by tinted glass and thousands of pounds of protective steel … we feel more anonymous and protected from judgment,” Jacobson said. “In this context, the other ‘people’ we encounter are not complex humans with thoughts, feelings, and judgements but, rather, dehumanized [obstacles] that can restrict our freedom of movement and satisfaction of important personal goals.”

That’s when it helps to be funny.

“Humor and heart strings and quirkiness and rhyming and pop culture and all those different things,” Sorenson said, help make an impact. This happens to be a behavioral science research strategy. Bernheimer believes that if you want to encourage a particular behavior, “you should make [your message] easy, attractive, social, timely: EAST.” Humor is attractive because it speaks to an individual’s emotional reality. “There’s a real tendency to think that humans are just really logical beings,” Bernheimer said, “and … if only people had the right information, they would do what they were supposed to do.”

That car clogging the left lane proves otherwise.

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