Radio New Zealand 101.4 FM in Auckland 
Christopher Clayton  talking on Sunday Supplement 9 May 2004

Thanks to Radio NZ for supplying this text.

Road safety commercials

We're about to start seeing new road safety commercials. The promise is that they won't feature as much blood and bone. Which is good because, really, what was the point of showing people doing dangerous and/or illegal things on the road, again and again.

I once had a debate with someone who defended that shock and horror approach. Dramatising the gore, she maintained, made the road safety message stick. Splatter made people really think about the possible consequences of speeding, or driving while drunk.

I said that this was dubious at best, and probably plain wrong. I knew from experience - in a previous life, I had written TV commercials - that the way you influence people via the medium of television was to model behaviour that you do want, rather than behaviour that you don't. For instance, you show people using toothpaste A, who then achieve a gleaming smile, rather than showing them using toothpaste B and turning their teeth black. The principle is, when it comes to TV commercials, what you see is what you get. So you show people in a car with a designated driver - affable conversation - rather than a teenager who drives drunk into a bridge abutment. And you show someone choosing to stay and play guitar with his mates after having a few, rather than driving through a country-road fence after having one last large one for the road.

But no, I was frostily told, the road safety commercials' funders had hard evidence that shock/horror was the way to go. I was tempted to retort that survey results depended on the framing of the survey's questions. Based on what New Zealanders were seeing on-screen, I wasn't confident that the questions had been framed rigorously.

After all, there were holes in the logic of some of the commercials then running that you could, so to speak, drive through. Remember the one about the lethal consequences of doing 60 in a 50 kph zone? A man drives at 60 down a suburban street and strikes a girl when she rides her tricycle out into the road from behind a parked car. Yet if a child rides or runs onto the road at precisely the wrong time, it doesn't really matter what speed the car is driving. If their timing is exactly wrong, children will be struck and killed whether a car is travelling at 60 kilometres per hour or just 10.

So the "speed kills" message is too simple. It's the truth, but not the whole truth. What it is, is a slogan. It's also meant to be a magic bullet - the lesson that almost on its own will save us from ourselves, and that almost on its own will make all the difference in reducing the number of New Zealanders who die every year on our roads. Hovering between 350 and 360 a year now, what's being sought is a drop, rather than a downward trend in the numbers.

But magic bullets don't exist. Improvements are instead usually made little by little. The survival of an additional 350 to 360 New Zealanders each year depends more on influencing millions of minute-to-minute driving decisions, of all kinds, rather than single risk factor decisions like sticking to speed limits, as important as that might be.

How do you eat an elephant? Bite by bite. How do you use television to improve safety? By modelling desirable driving behaviour, by adding to drivers' all-round education. Lessons on the physics of speed will be worthwhile, but, using the medium of television in the way in which it will be most effective in the medium and longer term will, in the end, work better. There is no quick fix. But a slow fix can be achieved by more drivers getting more decisions right, even small ones, more often, and for a higher percentage of their time behind the wheel. That involves more than keeping top speeds down and wearing seat belts. I agree entirely that those two things will save more lives than anything else when crashes occur.

But where's the long hard slog-work towards reducing the number of crashes?

Where's the effort to lift the average standard of driving?

Where's the communication of what good road safety behaviour involves?

Where are the commercials that demonstrate how everyone might, just by their driving habits and manners, make their contribution?

Could road safety commercials please start using the medium of television in an educational way that stands a better chance of actually making a cumulative, long-term difference.


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