Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Wired's Feedback Loop

Wired Magazine captivates me every month with some of the most random articles about various technologies that I never knew I was so interested in. As I was reading the July 2011 issue, I found myself fascinated with an article about feedback loops and how our brains work (by Thomas Goetz) . . . and the coolest part was that it linked itself to drivers and Your Speed signs.
In the portion about drivers, the basic premise is that drivers slow down an average of 10% when they compare their speed to the speed limit. Ten percent may not seem like a lot but in some problem areas that makes the difference between a crash being injury-only or having fatalities. 
The following diagram was presented in the article (which I highly recommend that you read) as a way of positive reinforcement for driving the speed limit. 
1 EvidenceThe radar-equipped sign flashes a car’s current speed.First comes the data—quantifying a behavior and presenting that data back to the individual so they know where they stand. After all, you can’t change what you don’t measure.
2 RelevanceThe sign also displays the legal speed limit—most people don’t want to be seen as bad drivers.Data is just digits unless it hits home. Through information design, social context, or some other proxy for meaning, the right incentive will transform rational information into an emotional imperative.
3 ConsequencesPeople are reminded of the downside of speeding, including traffic tickets and the risk of accidents.Even compelling information is useless unless it ties into some larger goal or purpose. People must have a sense of what to do with the information and any opportunities they will have to act on it.
4 ActionDrivers slow an average of 10 percent—usually for several miles.The individual has to engage with all of the above and act—thus closing the loop and allowing that new action to be measured.

It got me thinking about the Your Speed signs in my area and how pure my motivation for seeing my speed match the sign really is. I'm always relieved when I'm out of the radar's view. I don't feel watched and analyzed anymore. And when I see that the the car behind me is going faster than me, a smile forms on my face. I'm safe. If a police officer were around then he'd pull over the other guy. I'm not sure that's exactly the point Mr. Goetz was trying to make, but I think that's my motivation for compliance.
I drive at speeds that are safe and reasonable. Most of the time, I agree with the speed limits that have been set. That said, sometimes I disagree. And what I consider safe is not always what the speed limit setter thinks is safe. 
For example, there is a stretch of county road near my house that I drive almost every day with the posted limit as 25 miles per hour. There are only a handful of homes on it and a few businesses, which are all set back at 50+ feet from the road and there are no sidewalks. Visibility is high and very open. As such, I believe the speed limit should be set at 35 mph. Because of a strong inclination to go faster, it takes major concentration on my part to cap my speed at 25 mph. My discomfort increases as tailgaters (everyone in back of me) pile up. And the pressure gets more intense to increase speed. I don't want to be that driver who holds everyone up. 
So, now I'm wondering, just like Your Speed signs help slow down drivers, would they also have the ability to help me feel justified for obeying the limit when seemingly no one else is?

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