This sign needs to be everywhere

By: Josh Eachus

At thewxsocial.com, we’re frequently examining the struggle of communicating flood dangers. From Houston to Baton Rouge, we have pointed to countless challenges during heavy rain events that strand drivers and claim lives. Melissa Huffman submits several factors that may constrain action to areal and flash flood warnings like lack of familiarity with the flooded area, to being in a warning message restrictive setting like a vehicle. Perhaps it is all just disconnect from messenger to receiver. I have even suggested an alternate framing of the warning message to circumvent the “I can make it” mentality. But now, another city on the Gulf Coast is instituting a simple road sign that could become flood safety’s biggest ally since “turn around don’t drown.”

WWLTV’s Bill Capo reports that New Orleans Homeland Security Chief, Aaron Miller designed a sign to be placed at underpasses to warn drivers when a low-level roadway floods. The yellow sign will sit at street level with footage markers meant to convey water depth during heavy rain events.

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Aaron Miller, Director of Homeland Security & Emergency Preparedness in New Orleans with new road sign to be placed at flood prone underpass, photo via @BillCapo on Twitter

The eloquence of the idea hearkens back to Dr. Susan Jasko’s blog that challenges one to think differently about weather communication, so not to limit the possible number of effective messages. In this case, a non-meteorologist addressed one of the most frustrating issues plaguing the weather enterprise.  Having a sign indicate the exact level of floodwater arms drivers with a strong visual cue to make that choice to (hopefully) turn around.

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Flood prone underpass, Acadian Thruway in Baton Rouge, photo via @MsBWeiss on Twitter

A brief check of the risk perception literature will show that visual cues are one of the most powerful tools in warning reception and attention. From Mileti and Sorenson to Trainor and McNeil to Lindell and Perry we know that a person must perceive danger in order to abandon the “comfortable” decision such as driving forward as planned. People subconsciously battle against warnings, trying to perceive their environment as normal even while being told it is not. “I know this road, I drive it every day.” But there is no telling how fast the water is moving, or if the road is washed out below. Maybe the person has driven across a flooded street before and luckily made it through. So, environmental cues and visual confirmation of water depth may help to enhance the threat at hand. This imagery adds specificity to the weather message that may inspire the proper mitigating action.

Certainly, this is not an end all solution to flood deaths in vehicles, but it is one heck of a step in the right direction. Placing these signs in flood prone areas will afford drivers the opportunity to make an additional assessment of the situation, before deciding to push through or turn around. Yes, critics, we can argue that knowledge of water depth is pointless if the driver doesn’t understand that only two feet of moving water can float a car. However, such signage would be sufficient for a majority (I believe, optimistically) that can make rational, common sense decisions when given the chance.

Can we get these signs in every city? I don’t know. Can we get this idea in front of legislators as a (relatively) cheap flood safety step? It can’t hurt to try.


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3 thoughts on “This sign needs to be everywhere

  1. While the concept sounds interesting – do we have any studies that show it actually works? Turn Around Don’t Drown may or may not – but that doesn’t coat anything so it’s not a big deal if it doesn’t 🙂 But putting these signs everywhere would be expensive and I’d hate to invest that money without evidence.

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    • These are good points. Well, I think the research referenced in this blog that explains the power of visual cues in risk assessment and perception is a good starting point. I can provide more literature on this if needed.

      It seems the turn around don’t drown campaign also began on a hunch with some theoretical evidence, I’m sure after instituted, more has been done but they had to start somewhere, right? So why couldn’t theoretical evidence also initiate a similar grassroots effort like this?

      The T.A.D.D. campaign too, began with road signs. So the initial, up front cost would be the same, which in today’s money is under $100 per sign. At my station we’re actually exploring the idea of paying for a few signs and putting our logo on them which then takes taxpayer cost out of the equation. If private entities want some advertising and would care to sponsor a road sign, kind of like the adopt a highway program, it is a win-win. (my fiancee works at a shop that produces such signage and gives me a rough $75 cost per sign). And they would only be needed at particularly troublesome and prone areas which would be identified on a city by city basis. In Baton Rouge, this is 3 or 4 areas.

      I would even argue this cheaper over time because the whole T.A.D.D. campaign DOES cost money, and taxpayer money at that. It requires annual man hours and physical resources such as brochures and pamphlets plus digital space which surely cost more than printing and posting a sign… hands off after installed. I find this type of sign to be a low risk, relatively low cost potentially high reward option, even if it saves one life or stops a few cars from being stranded.

      So the theoretical evidence is there and the cost is low enough that I believe there are ways (with some creativity) that this could be implemented in particularly high risk areas with relative ease and possibly with no public money.

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  2. […] make it. What can we do to deter them from taking risky weather-bets? Here’s an excerpt from The Weather Social: “At thewxsocial.com, we’re frequently examining the struggle of communicating flood […]

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