Auto and Road User Journal
Auto and Road User Journal
Copyright © 1998 by TranSafety, Inc.
July 17, 1998
TranSafety, Inc.
(U.S. and Canada)
(360) 683-6276
Fax: (360) 335-6402

Texas "Vital Signs" Campaign Deemed Successful in Educating Drivers on Traffic Control Devices


Highway safety includes three elements, collectively known as the "safety triangle," that "must function together in harmony to achieve some measure of safety." The "roadway element" and the "vehicle element" legs of the triangle have seen numerous safety improvements over the years. The third leg--the "driver element"--has remained the weakest, "most elusive element of the triangle," due mainly to significant variability among drivers and the difficulty of monitoring or controlling them.

Many efforts have been devoted to improving driver safety, but "little attention has been given to educating drivers about the meaning and use of traffic control devices" (signs, pavement markings, and signals) which are "a critical element of the overall transportation system." Driver education courses provide the little information that prospective drivers receive, and this is often a one-time effort, with no updated or refresher training. As such, a sizable chunk of the adult driving public has not had instruction or education about traffic control devices (TCDs) for the past twenty-five years. When a revised edition of the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) is published, drivers remain virtually unaware of changes or new devices.

Several research studies have examined drivers' understanding of traffic control devices, and the authors have subsequently recommended ways to improve that understanding. However, these recommendations have aimed at changing the design or use of traffic control devices and have "rarely address[ed] non-engineering actions for improving comprehension." In addition, the research does not verify the actions taken to implement the recommendations, so the impact of the research remains in question.


A recent research study in Texas "found that drivers do not fully understand some traffic control devices." As a result, "the researchers and study sponsor developed a comprehensive implementation plan for increasing drivers' awareness of traffic control devices and their understanding of specific devices." H. Gene Hawkins, Jr., Susan M. Lancaster, Bernie R. Fette, and Lewis R. Rhodes described the plan in "Helping Drivers Understand Traffic Control Devices: Implementing Research Results," a paper presented at the Transportation Research Board's 77th Annual Meeting in January 1998. They concluded the implementation plan will "make an impact on motorist understanding of traffic control devices" and serve as an example of the significant outcomes that can result from research and its implementation.


Much of the plan's success can be attributed to its multi-agency effort, involving both public agencies and the private sector. This cooperative approach was "critical" for success. The public agencies involved were the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT), the Texas Transportation Institute (TTI), the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS), the Texas Education Agency (TEA), and the Texas Department of Health (TDH). Private assistance came from the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company (3M).

The partnership's goal "was to develop a program that would achieve maximum exposure with a minimal investment." That is, the goal was to reach the greatest number of drivers by using the available budget and resources and to keep the program flexible so it could be expanded or adapted for future needs and resources. With these objectives, the program focused on recommendations in three areas: engineering improvements, educational programs, and driver information campaigns.

Engineering Improvements

Recommendations in this area included (1) modifying TxDOT's practices "relative to the selection or use of existing traffic control devices," (2) changing the Texas MUTCD, and (3) changing the design of several existing signs to improve driver understanding. TxDOT will assess the recommendations "to determine the most effective means of implementing them."

Educational Programs

For several of the traffic control devices studied, the goal of increasing driver understanding would not be accomplished by changing the TCD design. For these devices, educating drivers was an alternative. For example, the researchers "felt that revising the Texas Drivers Handbook could have a significant impact on driver awareness and understanding of traffic control devices." Driver license applicants receive this handbook, and the information on traffic control devices was limited and sometimes out-of-date. The revision recommendations were submitted to TxDOT and the DPS for review, and "the changes were expected to be incorporated into the next edition of the Texas Drivers Handbook. In addition, driver education courses, driver safety courses, and the senior driver (over 55) safety program provided "a significant opportunity to educate drivers on the meaning and use of traffic control devices," and recommendations were made in all three areas.

Driver Information Campaign

This portion of the program was "challenging" because its intended audience--the general driving public--is a "highly variable" group. The agencies viewed developing an effective theme and logo as critical to attracting attention and providing continuity throughout the campaign. The slogan "Know Your Vital Signs" was chosen for its dual medical and traffic meanings, and it was displayed within a red and white octagon ("the best known of all traffic signs") and with the electrocardiogram (EKG) symbol ("also widely recognized by the public") on either side. This powerful visual and verbal theme/logo was in or on all five products of the campaign.

The first product was a combination brochure/poster that was widely distributed (133,000 copies) to such groups as driver education teachers, school bus drivers, elementary and junior high students, senior citizens, and drivers renewing their licenses. Based on the brochure/poster's popularity, funding was also provided for a different, more-detailed package with a related but different approach.

The second product was a thirty-second public service announcement (in English and Spanish) developed for television, and the third was a press conference in Austin, Texas to launch the campaign. Representatives of more than twenty daily newspapers in Texas attended the press conference, and their reports reached more than two million readers. Additional coverage by radio and television stations, a later news release and conference photo, and publication in the partner agencies' journals guaranteed that the campaign's message reached a significant number of Texas drivers. An instructional video and a slide presentation, intended for audiences in several different settings, were the final two campaign products.


The "Vital Signs" campaign "has been well received by the participating agencies and the general public," and its success has sparked interest "in taking the campaign to the national level." The campaign is a "unique example of putting research findings to work for the driving public" and a "tremendous example of what can be accomplished through public/private partnerships and coordinated efforts of multiple state agencies." The campaign also improved communication among the various agencies--which had previously not coordinated their efforts despite their common goal of driver safety. It also opened the way for similar cooperative projects and future products. Overall, the success of the "Vital Signs" campaign clearly made it "a model worth adopting for future outreach initiatives."

Copyright © 1998 by TranSafety, Inc.

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