Picture Panthers: Can Better Signage Get Drivers to Brake for Wildlife?

Kieran Lindsey

Kieran Lindsey | May 17, 2016

If you were driving through Florida’s Big Cypress National Park, which sign would be more likely to make you hit the brakes? This…

…or this?

This isn’t a purely hypothetical question—a research team from the University of Central Florida really wanted to know.

Ph.D. candidate Molly Grace and Drs. Reed Noss and Daniel Smith, of the UCF College of Science, teamed with the university’s Institute for Simulation and Training to investigate the effectiveness of combining Roadside Animal Detection Systems (RADS) and various types of warning signage.

RADS, which employ either radar or lasers, have been used and studied since the 1990s but the installations are not identical. The UCF team wanted to reduce the number of confounding variables such as road design, species of interest, and how the warning is conveyed.

The solution was to create a simulated road modeled after Highway 41, which runs through Big Cypress. Traffic on the road is a significant threat to the endangered Florida panther population, and panther-vehicle collisions are the largest controllable source of mortality.

The UCF study evaluated the response of RADS to animals darting into the road, while also examining drivers’ responses to text-based and picture-based warning signs.

The researchers did not study whether cuter pictures would be even more effective. (Wikipedia Michaelstone428)

Grace, Smith, and Noss discovered that a picture really is worth more than words—while text-based signs are better than no sign at all, picture-based signs were more effective at reducing driving speeds and brake reaction times. Better still is a combination of text and images. And if you really want to go for the gusto, add flashers to draw attention to your existing signs, and wildlife-vehicle collisions may be reduced by as much as 80 percent.

Warning signs—even the high-tech ones—are much less expensive than other methods for protecting wildlife from traffic, such as fencing and dedicated overpasses and underpasses. From that standpoint the UCF study results are cause for optimism.

Pessimism, too, because it seems distracted driving has become so prevalent that even while motoring through a scenic national park we need a combination of words, pictures, flashing lights, and lasers to make us slow down.

It's "stop and smell the swamp roses" not "crush the cougars." Yeah I'm talking to you. (Rodney Cammauf, National Park Service)

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