For most of us, motorway journeys are a humdrum and predictable segue in our lives. Those lost hours where we eat too many mints, fill the car up with styrofoam, and discover that Alan Partridge is alive and kicking on regional radio.
Feeling bored and frustrated, our horizons barely widen beyond the next contraflow. That’s until the unthinkable happens, and the banality of motorway travel is shattered when someone travels in the wrong direction.
Like most weary motorway travellers, it was the last thing on my mind as I drove down the M11 after Christmas. I’d just waved goodbye to family at Stansted airport and, with the holiday lull, all was quiet on the motorway.
A flashing ‘20MPH’ traffic sign was the first warning of problems ahead. Then the overhead gantry signs lit up with the words ‘ONCOMING VEHICLE’. Unsure of the situation, I hit the brakes and moved over to the slow lane.
The message was lost on most of my fellow travellers. The ‘ONCOMING VEHICLE’ warnings kept flashing; the cars kept zooming.
After a nervy 10 minutes, I watched the warning signs blinking into oblivion as I branched off the motorway to continue my journey home. I’d witnessed no screeching of brakes or hurtling of metal but felt rattled.
The experience got me thinking about the times when you only have a split second to communicate a crucial and potentially life saving message. In this case, while you may never stop the car careering in the wrong direction, if you can get the majority going the right way to act the right way, then maybe you’re in with a chance of averting a collision.
Use your words wisely
Are we wired by human nature to need to see before we believe? Or can we use language more effectively to evoke the necessary reaction?
All I know for sure is that ‘ONCOMING VEHICLE’ didn’t slow drivers down. Reports of other experiences of the ‘ONCOMING VEHICLE’ message posted on the web, including Honest John forum, HotUK Deals forum and a BBC news article, point to a similar trend.
Is it a case of the term ‘oncoming’ being too obscure or lightweight in this context, resulting in extra time for the brain to process the message and see red?
In a fast moving motorway situation, could simpler or more emotive words be effective in quickly turning thoughts into actions to prevent an accident?
What words would you use in that split second to slow motorists to a safe speed? We thought of the following, which you'll note we've formatted using Title Case, rather than ALL CAPS, not because they're not shoutworthy, but because there is a common theory that it takes the brain longer to process capitalised words:
Crash Hazard - Car Approaching
Look Out - Collision Danger
Hazard Ahead - Be Alert
Extreme Hazard - Car Approaching
Car Approaching - Dead Slow
Or as a last resort, if all else fails and the traffic keeps on speeding, how about: ‘Grit Teeth and Prepare For Impact’.