What do you think when you look at the image to the right? Is it safe to drive through that floodwater? What risks are you preparing for?

The flood water sign appears at first glance to suggest the water is about 20 centimetres deep. You can even see the gravel under the water. But on a more careful evaluation, the depth gauge shows the water could be 80 cm deep. At 60km/h that’s a killing ground.

Of course it isn’t 80cm. But it’s not just a poorly maintained signpost.

But as La Nina has been making its impact felt through out Australia and we’ve just started the season, it means many more flood warnings for most Australians are yet to come, and signs like this will lure people into unsafe conditions.

It’s time for a complete rethink of flood warning signage at road crossing throughout Australia.

Instead we’re likely to find tens of thousands of people will be driving through floodwaters with signage just like this, despite the now well-known phrase: “if it’s flooded forget it.”

Road flooding is just another example of events forcing people to make quick decisions about a risk they face. We know (see my book The Principles of Effective Warnings) that people who make decisions under stress need a great deal of help to make the right decision. The sign above offers very little help to the unwary driver, or a person with little or no knowledge of the region.

Validation, Personalisation, Localisation, Understanding, Belief.

They are the key rules of effective cognitive warning response. The signage, which is ubiquitous throughout Australia doesn’t help with any of those requirements.

A person driving into floodwaters needs at a minimum the following information:

  • How deep is the water
  • What is the condition of the road under the water.
  • How fast is the water flowing?
  • Is there any chance that a wave of water will suddenly flow down the creek?
  • How much water will force my car to lose constant traction, and maybe even float?

And lets not pretend the national “forget it” flood warnings are working: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vGRwrV_7rKw and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dERLuda_nOM&list=LLbtgmxIBQkBasq_cBPyomEQ&index=505. According to this research there were 96 deaths of people in cars trying to cross floodwaters in Australia between 2001 and 2017.

So whats to be done? We could start by painting the sign red…that makes them a WARNING SIGN not a road marker.

  • Then we could add an indicator on the sign of when it is UNSAFE TO CROSS.
  • Then we could advise people what levels of water make their car unsafe.
  • We could remind people we don’t know what the condition of the road is UNDER the water.

I created the mock up in a few minutes. How long will it take a professional sign-writer?