Complex signs increase wrong way driving,
Simple signs decrease wrong way driving.


Published in Tec, Vol. 52 no 6, June 2011 , p. 269-270
Portuguese in: Sinaldetransito, 2011

wrong way driving sign us
How many psychological errors displays this sign?


If you have never seen a wrong way sign entering a motor way, don‘t read this article and don‘t look at the pictures.

Having seen these signs once, increases the chance that you might become one of the 3% of all fatal road accidents caused by wrong way driving.

Wrong way in the wrong way

In the US there is a general preference for text signs. For wrong way there is a text sign. (See figure at the top). Perception of icons is faster and more accurate, especially in ill conditions (high speed, night) (error 1).

The foreground-background luminance of this sign is low because the white characters have a light red background (error 2). Wrong way driving occurs most frequently at night time. To increase the conspicuity of the sign in the dark, the sign should be as light as possible. The characters should be as dark as possible (error 3). Readability of lower case is 10% better. The case should be the lower one (error 4). So far, some comments from psychology of perception.
  The text can be understood as: How do they know I‘m lost? The Dutch wording ghost driving is more appropriate as it expresses the danger, the unexpectedness and the unbelieve of the reader (error 5). So does the German wording Geistlerradler (ghost cylist) on this sign. However, cyclist, in most cases, will ghost drive intentionally whereas car drivers are not aware they are ghost driving. wrong way driving sign germanyIn addition, wrong way does not tell the driver what to do (error 6). The same applies for using Stop (See figure at the right). wrong way driving sign denmark france Figure 2, text only tells the half of what to do
Source: Denmark
  The text should be more explicit as on this sign, used in the Netherlands:Go back.
8% (n=40) of the readers understand that they are ghost driving.
So far, some comments from cognitive psychology.
wrong way driving sign netherlands Figure 3, text is clear: Go Back
Source: The Netherlands
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Another solution

Because of the seriousness of the situation, the complexity and the little time available for the communication, one could argue that text only is not sufficient. An Austrian solution pictures a realistic situation.

wrong way driving sign austria Figure 4, pictorial solution for ghost driving
Source: Austria.
  • Triangle-shaped traffic signs are warnings of what is ahead. From the traffic sign system point of view, the meaning of this sign is: Take care, ghost driver ahead. You are not the one who is ghost driving (error 1). The shape should be a circle, meaning: You are not allowed to drive in this direction.

  • Although, the sign purports to be realistic it does not reflect the situation of the ghost driver. The entrance of the high way might not be a two lane way and there might not be other cars (error 2).

  • The grammatical errors in this sign allow for a wide variety of misinterpretations as can be seen in the table at the right.
  • The designer kept vertical lines compatible; the driving line on the sign and the driving line of the driver both are vertical. However, the designer reversed driving direction. In his visual field, the driver goes down-up and on the sign he goes up-down. This direction incompatibility also reinforces the interpretation: Take care, ghost driver ahead. (error 3). The realistic approach of the designer is not needed at all as the figure of the bridge sign at the right shows (error 4).
  • traffic sign open bridge Figure 5, incompatible perspective of driver and sign
    Opening or swing bridge ahead.
    Direction in the visual field of the driver: up down.
    Direction on the sign horizontal; left-right or right-left.
    Despite of this incompatibility, no driver will understand this sign as:
    You are sailing now, please give horn to ask for opening the bridge.
    Conclusion: vertical and realistic consistency is not always required.
  • Ghost driving is a direction conflict. This is indicated in three cars figure above by:
    1) small head lights that probably are too small to be noticed (error 5),
    2) colour difference that has no relation to direction (error 6) and
    3) The interpretation of % of the readers is that there is some kind of lane problem, eg. : Let emergency services pass in between. (error 7).

  • 0% (n=69) of the readers of the Austrian sign understands that they are ghost driving.
    traffic sign space for emergency services
    Sign for Let emergency services pass in between.
      In sum, the realistic triangle shaped ghost driving sign will increase confusion and even suggest that a ghost driver is on the correct way. Usually, confusion is  solved by education and information. The design is not changed but the car driver has to change his intuitive interpretation of the sign. In this case education is likely to increase the number of ghost drivers. Drivers should not be familiar with the sign!The experimental sign at the right does not include the psychological design errors mentioned above. In addition, the safety philosophy is not: The correct behaviour is not accomplished using learning, memory and exams but using The sign is self explanatory. 44% of the readers understands they are ghost driving(n=27). traffic sign experimental wrong way driving sign
    Figure 6, experimental ghost driving sign
    To induce better performance more legal stress or perceptual improvements might be ineffective. More might do the job, as in the figure at the right.

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    The right way to solve the problem

    Placing a ghost driving sign at the entrance of a motorway seems logical to prevent ghost driving. Drivers should be corrected at the moment they make that error.

    My preference would be that drivers never see the sign. Each time a right way driver sees a ghost driving sign he will think: Stupid lads, taking the wrong entrance!  and continue. When the same driver is a ghost driver, he again will think: Stupid lads, taking the wrong entrance!, and continue.

    When the driver has never seen the sign before in his life, the chance increases that he will think: Stupid me, I've taken the wrong entrance!

      In the situation of the figure at the right, the sign easily could be hidden for right way drivers by putting the signs 50 meters further. traffic sign wrong way driving sign go back netherlands Figure 7, the position of a ghost driving sign
    Go back sign visible for right way drivers. Placing these signs 50 meters back in this case is possible without any extra costs. In that case right way drivers can't see the Go back sign.

    Source: common practice in The Netherlands.
      When such a position is not possible Venetian blinds mounted in the right angle could do the job as is shown in the two traffic light figures at the right. traffic wrong way driving sign go back netherlands Figure 8, Venetian blinds on green traffic light
    Only car drivers close to the traffic light see green.
    Source: London
    traffic wrong way driving sign go back netherlands Figure 9, Venetian blind at the other side of  the road crossing
    The Venetian blinds prevents car drivers at the other side of the crossing seeing that the light of figure 8 is green.
    Source: London
      Drivers should not see the sign while driving and not even while studying road signs for their driving test. Laws for traffic rules should forbid publication of articles such as this, showing ghost driving signs.Never having seen the ghost sign, will increase the probability of a reaction like: What the hell is going on here!
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