Remember those yellow and black “Baby On Board” placards that hung from inside so many car windows a few years ago, signaling the presence of an infant?

That fad has faded. The idea was to remind other drivers to drive extra carefully to protect the vulnerable babe aboard that vehicle.

Now a new study suggests a similar and appealingly simple way that we can turn ourselves into safer drivers all the time, not just when we spot one of those placards.

A favorite photo—complete with gummy smile—could hold the key…

ROAD TEST

The study involved 87 men and women. One group of participants was assigned to look at photos of everyday objects such as pencils or chairs…another group looked at photos of policemen patrolling the streets…a third group looked at pictures of smiling babies. Each group saw 10 different pictures for 10 seconds each.

After looking at the pictures, all the participants played a simulated driving game. The “drivers” operated their virtual vehicles by pressing and releasing buttons to stop and start. Traveling the route to their intended destination, they had to navigate various intersections with traffic lights—and when a light turned from green to yellow, they had to decide whether to keep moving across the intersection or brake to a stop. The amount of time the lights stayed yellow before turning red varied from two to seven seconds. Participants earned points for time spent in motion—unless the yellow light turned red while they were still in the intersection, in which case they lost all their points.

Time spent in motion while a traffic light was yellow was considered an indicator of risky driving behavior. Frequent stops were considered signs of cautious driving.

Finish line: The researchers found that it didn’t matter whether the drivers were men or women, nor whether they were relative novices or experienced behind the wheel. The only factor that affected risky behavior in this test was the type of photographs the participants had viewed before taking to the road. Surprisingly, people who looked at pictures of policemen scored the same as those who looked at images of everyday objects—the reminder of possibly getting a ticket did not reduce drivers’ risky behaviors. But: Participants who looked at pictures of smiling babies “drove” with significantly more caution—spending less time going through intersections with yellow or red lights and stopping more frequently.

Researchers attribute the results to a phenomenon called “feelings as information.” When people are exposed to affective stimuli (something that affects their mood or feelings), they subconsciously evaluate the stimuli and adjust their behavior accordingly. In this case, the drivers felt protective after looking at pictures of babies—and thus were less inclined to take risks.

IN THE REAL WORLD

For safety’s sake, this study was conducted virtually rather than on actual roads—so we can’t say for sure how the results would translate into the real world. But considering how rampant road rage is these days, I’d suggest that we could all adapt the study technique to increase our courtesy and caution—and our own safety—on the road.

And some of us could really use that, don’t you think?

Of course, it wouldn’t be safe to look at baby pictures while actually driving. But why not try carrying a favorite baby photo of your child, grandchild or another beloved person in your car? Taking a quick look right before turning on the ignition may be the key to a safer journey…for you and for those around you.