“Look Right” ain’t always right

Nudge blog correspondent Meicheng Shi reports on an interesting case where the standard “Look Right” signs (painted all over streets in Britain and other left-hand traffic countries) failed to prevent accidents. She offers some thoughts on why “Look Right” is not a one-size-fits all solution and some of the many versions of the “Look Right” signs she’s spotted around New Zealand.

In November 2010, the city of Wellington, New Zealand opened a new bus route through Manners Mall, formerly an exclusively pedestrian walkway. The city council spent $70,000 to promote the change: distributing safety fliers and posters, assigning staff to patrol the route, and even implementing a few clever nudges.

Giant displays stand prominently along the street, reminding pedestrians of oncoming buses.

Countless “Look Right” signs are painted onto the curb, drawing on behavioral principles of frequency and immediacy—pedestrians are repeatedly exposed to the message, which they see just prior to crossing the street.

Some signs even employ humor to increase the salience of the message.

In spite of all this, since November, six pedestrians have been hit by buses while crossing the street, mostly near Manners Mall. Why are these nudges seemingly ineffective?

Habit no doubt acts as a major obstacle—pedestrians accustomed to Manners Mall being free of cars are probably also used to crossing without looking. Even with well-designed nudges, this behavior may be difficult to change.

Yet one hypothesis is that the nudges implemented by the city council are not fully exploiting a powerful behavioral concept: loss aversion. Because the existing nudges focus on positive reinforcement, the potential consequences of crossing without looking may not be salient enough to pedestrians. A Nudge blog post from last March about the Wadala Railway Station offers a good, albeit gruesome, case of consequences made salient.

In a more subtle example, a curbside sign in a different part of Wellington reads, “Stop Look Live.”

Perhaps tellingly, no pedestrians have been hit by cars here. To be fair, this street was never a pedestrian-only walkway. However, upon reading the sign, you can’t help thinking, “If I stop, look and live, what happens if I don’t stop and look?”

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  • Anonymous

    When crossing the road at a crossing like in these examples, I don’t look down at my feet, but more towards the sign on the opposite side. The signs there warn (though upside down) to look the wrong way(!).

    • Wellington bus user

      Living in Wellington, I’m incensed by the cost of this … a bit of tape across the pavements for a few months with specific gaps in which to cross would have been far more effective and less costly. I’m amazed how often I see people dashing in front of the buses both when I’m a pedestrian and when I’m on the buses themselves – the poor drivers are nervous wrecks!

  • greenbean

    maybe “Don’t get hit!” would work even better

  • http://profiles.google.com/eric.haaland Eric Haaland

    $70K to remind people not to get run over by a bus??!! I think this issue is more akin to the railroad crossing phenomena, where there are less accidents at less “protected” railroad crossings because people crossing there realize they have to look out for their own safety. Maybe if the government stopped going out of their way to remind people of something of which they should already constantly be aware, people would realize they only they are responsible for keeping themselves safe.

  • Guest

    As a Wellingtonian, I can safely say that any nudges willl be useless. Wellingtonians are notorious jaywalkers. Driving in the central city is especially hazardous. You not only have to look out for cars but pedastrians who don’t even bother to look.