By Ceanna Moan, Cori Sanderson and Daniel Larson
In the following brief analysis, the meaning of ‘fatality’ signs, in addition to their applicability and role is discussed in the context of the City of Edmonton. The signs are controversial in the city, as there is no unified consensus as per what role they play, and discourse exists as to whether they are positive or negative in their impact on motorists.
Fatality signs in the City of Edmonton provides drivers with the task of interpreting their meanings without explicit interaction. Roland Barthes’s interpretation of Saussure’s model of semiotics can be related to the reactions that Edmontonians have to fatality signs around the city. In applying Barthes’ model of the signifier+signified=sign, the signifier is the shape of the coffin and the bold word of ‘fatality’ written across it. In turn, the signified meaning of this particular signifier is, as discussed below, to alert drivers that a fatality happened and imply that they should drive more carefully. In Barthes theory, when combining the signifier and the signified, the result is the sign. In this way, the fatality signs marking where accidents have occurred, imply a warning to drivers.
Furthermore, Barthes’ theory of denotative and connotative meanings of signs can be applied to the responses of Edmonton drivers when encountering the signs. According to Barthes, “the literal image is denoted and the symbolic image [is] connoted” (Barthes 1977, 37). So when applied to fatality signs, the intention is that the drivers be more alert and cautious to the speed limits when driving in the particular area that the sign is placed. The denotative meaning of the ‘fatality’ signs is the acknowledgment of a traffic related death, while the connotative meaning is that the driver should take extra caution. Barthes concludes that when perceiving signs, “the denoted image naturalizes the symbolic [or connoted] message” (Barthes 1977, 45). By applying Barthes’ ideas to ‘fatality’ signs, theoretically the connotative meaning of being more cautious are disguised in the sign’s detonative meaning.
As has been commented upon, there exists a great deal of theory pertaining to mediums, messaging and communication in signs. The messaging in signs is not always communicated in practicality however, as real-life scenarios do not implicitly correlate to assumed outcomes. While the theory pertaining to the example of ‘fatality’ signs in Edmonton, and their application in alerting drivers to the fact that someone has died and the implication that they should take caution, seems effective enough, studies have a different take on the issue. What is the purpose of these signs if their intended affect does not transpire?
The city of Edmonton in partnership with the Memorial & Traffic Safety Fund of the Edmonton Community Foundation, erect the ‘fatality’ signs at locations on city streets where a traffic fatality has occurred. The fatalities implied are not only those between vehicles, but also between vehicles and cyclists, as well as between vehicles and pedestrians. The city states that the “Traffic Fatality Sign Program […] is designed to increase awareness of fatal collisions” by installing the ‘fatality’ signs for a period of 6 months from the date of the incident (City of Edmonton, Memorial & Traffic Safety Fund). While individuals may erect their own memorials to loved ones at the site of fatalities, the city discourages these for reasons of safety and to prevent motorist distraction, and removes them after a period of time and after consultation with the bereaved (ibid). As a result of disallowing personal memorials over a longer period of time, the ‘fatality’ signs act as a more officiated, standardized, albeit colder, recognition of that victim’s passing.
The work of the University of Alberta’s Andrew Harrell, in his studies of traffic safety and the impact of ‘fatality’ signs, have shown that the ‘fatality’ signs do not positively affect the behaviour of motorists in navigating traffic more safely (Smith 2005). In fact, in a case study that examined the behaviour of motorists in three intersection scenarios, one of which had a ‘fatality’ sign posted, traffic violation was actually higher. In the study, 8.5% of motorists ran red lights or sped through yellows at the ‘fatality’ posted intersection, while 6.7% did so after the sign had been removed and 7.1% did so at a separate control intersection (ibid). Harrell believes that the signs do not work because “it’s not clear what they are supposed to do –they don’t ask you to comply in any way” (ibid). In a separate study analyzing motorist response to individuals wishing to use a crosswalk designated with a ‘fatality’ sign, Harrell noted that motorists were more inclined to acknowledge and respect signs that were less vague and more direct in their meaning, for instance signs designating speeding fines (Harrell 1992:346). In this same study, which examined motorists yielding to visibly disabled individuals versus visibly able individuals wishing to use a crosswalk, it was found that motorists yielded more so for the disabled individuals. When a ‘fatality’ sign was placed into the environment, it did not have any discernible affect in terms of promoting motorists yielding for the able pedestrian, but when the sign was compounded with the disabled pedestrian, “the effect of the sign was profound” in promoting motorist yielding (ibid:351). From examples in the two studies, it can be seen that the sign itself does not have much of an impact, but when used in conjunction with another visual cue, such as a more explicit sign indicating consequences for the motorist, or the visibly disabled individual, the sign’s request of compliance becomes clearer in the mind of the noticing motorist. It is important to keep in mind that not all behaviour indifference related to ‘fatality’ signs occur on the part of the motorists. Harrell et al note that “pedestrians [do] not act more safely when fatality signs are present than when they [are] absent” (Harrell, David-Evans, Gartrell 2004:760).
While the scientific studies of the effectiveness of the ‘fatality’ signs would indicate that they do not inherently influence safer behaviour on roads en masse, evidently others such as the municipality and those who lost loved ones, would state that the signs do have a role to play. That role might indeed be something to act as a reminder to those who knew the person who died (as compounded upon by personal memorials), and to show that the passing is noted. This discourse does exist over the purpose, validity and worth of the signs, but for now, the signs still go up.
See Video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nPY4FXYfR7I
Barthes, Roland. Images, Music and Text. Translated by Stephen Heath (New York: Hill and Wang, 1977), 33-51.
The City of Edmonton. Traffic Safety. “Memorial & Traffic Safety Fund.” The City of Edmonton: Transportation. 23 October. 2007. Web. 5 April. 2010.
Harrel, W.A. “Driver Response to a Disabled Pedestrian Using a Dangerous Crosswalk.” Journal of Environmental Psychology 12 (1992): 345-354. Web. 30 March. 2010.
Smith, Ryan. “Pedestrians and Motorists Ignore Fatality Signs, Study Shows.” ExpressNews. University of Alberta, 7 Feb. 2005. Web. 30 March. 2010.
Rooke, Charlene. Edmonton: Secrets of the City. Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2001. Google Books. Web. 7 April. 2010.
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