Can Behavioral Interventions Be Too Salient? Evidence From Traffic Safety Messages

87 Pages Posted: 15 Jul 2020 Last revised: 15 Jan 2021

See all articles by Jonathan D. Hall

Jonathan D. Hall

University of Toronto - Department of Economics; University of Toronto - Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy

Joshua Madsen

University of Minnesota - Twin Cities - Carlson School of Management

Date Written: January 16, 2021

Abstract

Behavioral interventions are an increasingly popular tool for encouraging socially desirable behavior. While they are expressly designed to seize people's attention, little consideration has been given to the costs of doing so. We estimate the consequences of seizing attention in the context of a widespread highway traffic safety campaign that displays roadside fatality counts on highway dynamic message signs (DMSs). We exploit detailed data on DMS and crash locations, DMS log files, and a unique setting in Texas where fatality messages are displayed only for one week each month. We find that this behavioral intervention significantly increases the number of traffic crashes. This increase is immediate, dissipates over 7 km, and increases with the displayed fatality count. Furthermore, drivers do not habituate to these messages, even after five years, and the effects do not persist beyond the treated weeks. Crashes increase statewide during treated weeks, inconsistent with any benefits. Our results show that behavioral interventions, designed to be salient, can crowd out more important considerations, causing interventions to backfire with costly consequences.

Keywords: behavioral intervention, nudges, salience, cognitive load, traffic safety, DMS

JEL Classification: D83, D91, H43, R41

Suggested Citation

Hall, Jonathan D. and Madsen, Joshua, Can Behavioral Interventions Be Too Salient? Evidence From Traffic Safety Messages (January 16, 2021). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3633014 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3633014

Jonathan D. Hall (Contact Author)

University of Toronto - Department of Economics ( email )

150 St. George Street
Toronto, Ontario M5S3G7
Canada

University of Toronto - Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy ( email )

Toronto, Ontario
Canada

Joshua Madsen

University of Minnesota - Twin Cities - Carlson School of Management ( email )

19th Avenue South
Minneapolis, MN 55455
United States

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