Traffic emojis outside school
Traffic emojis outside schools signal drivers when to slow down with happy and sad face emojis Image Credit: RTA

Dubai: Tragic accidents around school communities in the recent past have called for safer driving habits among residents in school zones, although Road Transport Authority (RTA) on its part has been trying to enforce a 40 kmph speed limit with the installation of smart emojis in these areas.

The smart signs display a smiling or angry emoji depending on the driver’s current speed. They have been installed by the RTA at zebra crossings near schools in Dubai. While several schools have reported a drop in speeding limits around schools due to these emojis, recent incidents in which students were killed shows not everyone is paying heed.

On November 4, a four-year-old Indian girl was killed when a speeding reversing car hit her and her mother outside the Greenfields International School in Jebel Ali. Similarly, on October 14, a Nepalese security guard was killed outside Universal American School in Dubai Festival City after a parent who was there to pick up her child lost control of the car she was driving.

Emojis should matter

The emojis are actually an international practice that have proved that subliminal positive messages do have a significant role in shaping safe driving attitudes of motorists. Going by universal principles of positive reinforcement, motorists typically respond positively by slowing down to receive the ‘green smiling emoji’ feedback, instead of the red angry face even when there is no fear of fine or punitive action.

Engineer Maitha  bin Adai-1573465949033
Maitha bin Adai, Chief Executive of the RTA traffic and roads agency Image Credit: Supplied

Engineer Maitha bin Adai, chief executive of the RTA traffic and roads agency, said: “The smart signs are devices equipped with digital screens capable of capturing and showing the driving speed as the vehicle passes through a school’s zone, along with emojis that intelligently depict the driver’s mental state while driving. A smiling face indicates the driver is compliant with the prescribed speed limit while the frowning face means the driver has exceeded the speed limit.”

How the psychology works

Mandeep Jassal, therapist at the Priory WellBeing Centre, Dubai, explained the deep psychological conditioning impact that these smart signs can have. “Positive conditioning is defined as when ‘an individual makes an association between a particular behaviour and a consequence and the certain behaviour is encouraged’. This theory is effective in numerous scenarios such as community initiatives. The smiling emoji releases a ‘feel good feeling’ which encourages the individual to obey safe driving rules even if nobody is looking.”

According to Jassal, the way this works is that certain parts of the brain light up receiving approval. “The frontal cortex regions, the hypothalamus, the amygadala and the orbi-frontal section of the prefrontal lobe of the brain ‘light up’ when seeing an approving, smiling face in green or an angry, red-faced emoji.

“The frontal cortex regions (hypothalamus and orbi-frontal) involve a neurochemical process of dopamine being released (to reinforce good behaviour of driving safely and at low speeds). The amygdala - the brain’s fear centre - is most likely the region that prevents us from behaviour that may lead to punishment.”

Positive reinforcement has been proved by well-known psychologist B.F. Skinner who showed how it worked by placing a hungry rat in his Skinner box. The box contained a lever in the side and as the rat moved about the box it would accidentally knock the lever. Immediately it did so a food pellet would drop into a container next to the lever. The rats quickly learned to go straight to the lever after a few times of being put in the box. The consequence of receiving food if they pressed the lever ensured that they would repeat the action again and again.

Vox Pop: What residents have to say

Clarice Borgo, Business analytics manager Image Credit: Supplied

Clarice Borgo, Business analytics manager

“I moved here from Australia, where they already have the speed signs featuring emojis or other symbols outside all schools. I keep to the speed limit anyway and would expect most people to be especially careful near schools. The fact there are children close by who don’t understand the dangers of the roads should be motivation enough! However, I think the emoji signs near the school zones where I have driven are a good idea because they are a useful reminder for drivers, and they stand out more than regular road signs.”

Anshu Kaura- Homemaker-1573465944695
Anshu Kaura, Homemaker Image Credit: Supplied

Anshu Kaura, Homemaker

“I live in the Arabian Ranches and through the main arterial road of our neighbourhood, we have these emojis. Usually I love to zip past, but in our neighbourhood, the emojis are a soft reminder for caution and as a member of the community I take precaution to slow down as I know some neighbourhood person might be backing out a car from the garage or a child might be riding a bicycle. These emojis have made our neighbourhood much safer as the motivation to slow down is instinctive because most people want to see a green smiley rather than an angry, glaring red-face.”

Tracey Thompson
Tracey Thompson, PR specialist Image Credit: Supplied

Tracey Thompson, PR specialist

“I frequently drive through Arabian Ranches and past the JESS school and almost as a reflex, my car slows down at the smart signs which are dotted around. I think, however, that most responsible motorists would naturally slow down around schools with or without the signs, but they can provide an additional reminder and play on the conscience of those who might otherwise accelerate on an empty road with no cameras.”