Home Culture ‘It will never happen to me’: The problem with road safety campaigns

‘It will never happen to me’: The problem with road safety campaigns


Governments could be wasting money on ineffective and expensive fear-driven road safety campaigns featuring mangled cars and bloodied bodies, finds new Australian research – the latest to question whether these ads can save lives.

Three people have already died on NSW roads this long weekend, with police warning that double demerits are in place for speeding and risky behaviour such as mobile phone use.

The study argues that road safety campaigns like this that target penalties and points are more effective than those highlighting blood and bingles.

Why? Most drivers are more likely to believe they can control the occurrence of fines than a serious crash.

“Our research suggests that people don’t believe they can do anything about it [a fatal or serious crash] even when a crash is framed as the fault of the individual,” said Dr Rebecca Pedruzzi who conducted the research as a doctoral candidate at James Cook University.

Yet in 2016, 1295 people died on Australian roads, a 7.5 per cent increase compared to 2015.

After decades of reductions, the spike prompted the federal minister Darren Chester to last month announce an inquiry: he worried that we are “too accepting of the fact 1300 Australians will die on our roads and tens of thousands will be injured this year”.

Dr Pedruzzi and other researchers conducted two surveys to find out if participants believed they could control their exposure to “negative road outcomes” including fines and car crashes.

The first asked 236 drivers how confident – on a scale of one to seven for most confident – were they in their ability to control or influence road behaviours and outcomes – including being booked for speeding and being involved in a car crash – on a scale of one (not confident) to seven (confident they can control).

On average, participants rated themselves six out of seven for being able to control risky behaviour such as speeding.

But when asked about their control over a car crash, they gave it a 3.6. When asked about ability to control the likelihood of getting a fine, they gave it a rating of six.

A follow up study with 228 respondents found drivers didn’t feel they could influence the outcome of a crash even when it was framed as their own fault.

The results are described as “surprising” by authors Dr Pedruzzi, the principal investigator, and coauthors Dr Anne Swinburne from James Cook University, and Professor Frances Quirk from Barwon Health in Victoria.

But they added there were limitations to the research, and further work was needed.

Professor of road safety at University of NSW’s Transport and Road Safety Research Centre, Raphael Grzebieta, said it was unfortunate that a number of policies in the past and currently being considered were often driven by “populist social media, agenda pushers, marketing and public relations”.

It was essential that road safety campaigns were evaluated and assessed by highly skilled independent researchers.

Professor Grzebieta – who is also editor of the journal that published the research after a peer review – said an independent scientific approach was essential to develop effective road safety policies, and provide the community with the best outcomes to achieve reduced road trauma, for the money invested.

“Tragically, this is currently not being addressed adequately.”

Dr Pedruzzi said campaigns that addressed why people acted in a certain way would be more effective than those that didn’t.

NSW road safety researcher Julie Hatfield, who sat on an expert panel some years ago that reviewed campaigns using fear, said it was then fairly well-known that using fear didn’t work very well.

“Most people simply can’t imagine themselves in that sort of situation,” said Dr Hatfield, a senior research fellow at the Transport and Road Safety Centre.

“Or they think that’s something that could only happen to someone else – with most people overestimating their driving ability,” she said.

“Getting a fine is not such a dire outcome because you don’t have to protect your whole view by denying it. But the idea of dying in a crash is not in anyone’s world view, and not something that anyone wants to imagine,” she said.

Dr Hatfield wasn’t ruling out the role of fear in these campaigns, but more work needed to be done in this area.

Many road safety organisations have been testing a range of new campaigns, such as Victoria’s Meet Graham, a lifelike interactive sculpture that shows how vulnerable humans are in a road crash.

Graham was created by leading trauma surgeon Christian Kenfield, crash investigator expert David Logan and world-renowned artist Patricia Piccinini.


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