What is it about?

A controversial aspect that arises from the use of different traffic signaling devices is that drivers often have to understand messages they are seeing for the very first time. This article analyzes the results of a series of empirical studies carried out with the aim of internationalizing variable message signs (VMS) by substituting keywords (e.g., prepositions) for abstract graphic signs (e.g., an arrow). Faced with novel elements in a traffic message about which drivers must conclude something in real-time, they have no choice but to reason. This article explores the most appropriate arrangement (vertical, horizontal) and the frame of reference adopted by drivers (intrinsic, relative) as determinants of the comprehension of novel and complex VMS (e.g., congestion before arriving to Milan).

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Why is it important?

Claiming that drivers "reason" when they see a road sign is controversial. In general, traffic signs are assumed to be understood by virtue of an automatic, overlearned, and precise cognitive operation. However, complex traffic signs, in particular, can be the subject of reasoning, which implies conscious control, the intervention of the always fallible working memory, and, ultimately, the possibility of error. This work is based on the assumption that it is possible to design complex international road signs that are understood. But first, we must determine how the driver processes and models them in his mind.


To make optimal use of the existing road network (without necessarily building more roads), we must be able to transmit complex information to the driver in real-time (e.g., works, accidents, congestion, detours, park-and-ride, etc. ). And the driver must be able to process and understand it on the fly. Only in this way does all the technological sophistication of our days and its informative capacities make sense. The possibilities to inform the driver (on fixed signs, variable signs, cockpit or smartphones, etc.) are limited by our expectations of what he will be able to understand functionally. Last but not least, if we are to cooperate with artificial intelligence, these devices must also be programmed in such a way that their starting point is how we reason when driving (for example, when interpreting traffic signs). Under these circumstances, we cannot afford to cooperate with machines less functional than ourselves.

Antonio Lucas-Alba
Universidad de Zaragoza

Read the Original

This page is a summary of: On drivers’ reasoning about traffic signs: The case of qualitative location., Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, April 2022, American Psychological Association (APA), DOI: 10.1037/mac0000016.
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