mixed greens

It’s written on their faces

Posted 1/9/24

Do you see faces in inanimate objects? The phenomenon known as pareidolia is quite common in human experience—for example, seeing animal shapes in clouds or face-like patterns in the grain of a …

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mixed greens

It’s written on their faces


Do you see faces in inanimate objects? The phenomenon known as pareidolia is quite common in human experience—for example, seeing animal shapes in clouds or face-like patterns in the grain of a piece of wood or stone. One possible explanation has to do with the importance of facial recognition—particularly the recognition of emotional states in other people or animals—as an evolutionary survival technique, a shorthand way to identify potential threats. 

Some of my favorite personal experiences of pariedolia include some “ancient forest spirit” faces I photographed in a neighbor’s gnarled tree trunks, and the way my bathroom sink’s hot and cold taps, integral porcelain spout and the horizontal slash of the overflow hole correspond to eyes, nose and mouth, greeting me with a whimsical expression. Most vividly, I recall excruciating staff meetings at one of my early jobs where, looking down to avoid attracting the attention of a ranting employer, I would find the faces of tormented souls in the highly-figured walnut burl veneer of the conference table.

The shape and arrangement of the headlights and front grills of cars and trucks can also suggest a face, and in recent years I have noticed that some of these faces are distinctly sinister. I thought it was my imagination, until I actually heard a car advertisement describing the vehicle as “aggressive,” and meaning it as a positive attribute. 

In fact, a number of studies over the past 20 years have shown that a significant number of consumers prefer vehicles that project aggression and even anger through their size and the design of their automotive “faces,” including headlights that suggest slit-like “eyes” and tall, square, “muscular” front grills that look intimidating. Manufacturers have taken note, evoking pareidolia in their designs to appeal to drivers’ desire to express power and dominance through their vehicles.

Little wonder that vehicle-related pedestrian deaths have increased by 80 percent since 2009, reaching 7,400 in 2021—about 20 Americans per day—according to a new report released by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). The IIHS study looked at records of nearly 18,000 pedestrian accidents, and extrapolated data on the vehicle type and size to develop some alarming correlations between industry design decisions and the degree of risk certain vehicles pose to pedestrians and cyclists.

While earlier studies had found that pedestrians were likely to suffer more serious injuries in accidents involving SUVs, the IIHS researchers found specific design features that contributed to a higher fatality rate: vehicles with a hood height of more than 40 inches and blunt front ends (front hoods with less than a 65-degree slope) were 45 percent more likely to cause a pedestrian death in a collision. 

The reason is fairly straightforward. Pedestrians hit by vehicles with safer, lower front ends and sloping hoods are more likely to be thrown up on the hood of the vehicle. Those struck by a vehicle with a high, blunt front end are more likely to be knocked to the ground; to sustain more severe head, torso and pelvic injuries; or to be run over by the vehicle.

Aside from the basic desire to sustain life and reduce the epidemic of pedestrian fatalities, how is all this relevant to sustainability? Among the many emerging strategies for addressing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions while enhancing human health and well-being is the move to create safe, walkable communities where residents can enjoy the outdoors and get healthy low-impact exercise by walking or biking to short-distance destinations. 

Combined with opportunities for public transit, this community design strategy can reduce the amount of time and miles traveled in personal vehicles. But this strategy can only work if people feel safe on their neighborhood walks, and for decades most of our development has been automobile-centered. 

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has proposed a comprehensive “safe systems” approach that looks at issues of impaired driving, consistent use of safety restraints like seat belts and pedestrian-friendly roadway design to address America’s high incidence of traffic fatalities. The IIHS’s recent studies seem to indicate that vehicle design is another critically important factor, and that consumers can also play their part by examining the misplaced aggression that has made dangerous (and often fuel-guzzling) oversized vehicles so bizarrely popular. 

In the words of IIHS senior research transportation engineer Wen Hu, the lead author of the Insurance Institute’s study: “Manufacturers can make vehicles less dangerous to pedestrians by lowering the front end of the hood and angling the grille and hood to create a sloped profile. There’s no functional benefit to these massive, blocky fronts.”

pariedolia, faces, inanimate, objects, vehicles, driving


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