No. 17 (2019): Rules without Words: Inquiries into Non-Linguistic Normativities
Section 2. Images and Rules

“Road Rules”: Analyzing Traffic Signs through a Socio-Cognitive Approach

Luigi Cominelli
Università degli Studi di Milano

Published 2019-12-15


  • road sign,
  • behavior

How to Cite

Cominelli, L. (2019). “Road Rules”: Analyzing Traffic Signs through a Socio-Cognitive Approach. Phenomenology and Mind, (17), 122–134.


Around 1.3 million people die every year because of road traffic crashes. Although safety rules, vehicle standards and post-accident health care, have all seen significant improvement, rising population and quick motorization rates have added to the casualty numbers. Road safety has been included among the Sustainable Development Goals, but the target set of halving the number of road deaths by 2020 will be missed. With the emergent attention to road safety, several approaches may be adopted. One is tightening penalties to induce more prudent behavior. The second is to improve protection devices and vehicles. The third is to adapt road designs, including roadside signs, to modern roads and vehicles and to human behavior. This last approach in particular is the one where I think that substantial improvements may still be achieved. One of the most interesting aspects in terms of impact and effectiveness of rules, may be understood by focusing on the cognition process of the rule that is incorporated into a road sign, and by how this cognition can be framed so that voluntary compliance is enhanced. Road signs have always made extensive use of explanatory images. But it is also the unconscious social pressure that one’s driving behavior is being watched that produces compliance. A normative-semiotic perspective should be integrated by a cognitive perspective, so that insights from both the natural and the social sciences may achieve higher degrees of precision and predictability.


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