Nudged into the oncoming lane

Behavioral economists Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein are known for advocating a sort of “paternalistic libertarianism.” The basic idea is to nudge people toward more rational behavior through non-coercive means. Indeed, their book on the subject is entitled “Nudge“.

While there is much to be said in favor of this idea, especially when compared with more coercive governmental alternatives, this approach is not without risks.  Joshua Madsen and Jonathan Hall studied the effect of electronic highway signs designed to frighten motorists into driving more carefully.  The Economist reports that their study found some unintended consequences:

The study focused on Texas, where the year’s cumulative death toll from road accidents was displayed on highway signs one week in four. The authors found that, between 2010 and 2017, there were more accidents in the weeks when death counts were shown. Most excess crashes happened in the kilometre after a sign, but for several kilometres there was still an elevated risk (see top chart). . . .

The authors think that the sombre messages may be distracting drivers.

Luckily, the story has a happy ending:

The study highlights how seemingly innocuous “nudges”, used by governments to try to change behaviour, can backfire.

Luckily America’s government has given a nudge of its own. Last year the Federal Highway Administration released a memo clarifying that it was inappropriate to use electronic highway signs to display death tolls.