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Posted by on Aug 26, 2009 in Uncategorized | 19 comments

Shock & Awe: Can Graphic Traffic Safety PSAs Change Behavior?

I have more questions than answers on this topic. But let me begin with a warning. If you are in a happy-go-lucky mood and want to stay that way, save this post for another day. Go visit our friend Rantwick. He’s having fun and you can too!

You’ve been warned.

These first two PSAs are long and very graphic. They tell a story intended to embed the consequences of rash and irresponsible driving into the viewer’s psyche. The first is on texting while driving, the second is on speeding and reckless driving.

Posted yesterday by Andy at Carbon Trace.

Then there’s the one Mighk posted in the comments a few days ago—it’s graphic with a snarky, irreverent twist:

And then there’s another approach being tried in Australia:

What kind of message breaks through the Culture of Speed to actually change a viewer’s behavior? Do graphic messages have unintended consequences? Do they exaggerate the perception of our roads being too dangerous for active transportation? What gets their attention, what keeps it, what causes them to examine and then change behavior. Ultimately, how do you effectively translate that into a change in the culture which then influences individual behavior?

Your observations and insights are desired.


  1. Remember the The Crying Indian” ad from 1971? It was credited with having a big impact on littering and pollution.

    Here’s what I wrote when I wondered about such PSAs for driving:

    “We all know that tens of thousands die each year in automobile crashes caused mostly by human hubris — not “accidents” because there’s nothing accidental about texting and driving, or drinking and driving, or putting on makeup and driving. No actor pretending to be a crying Native American is going to change the death toll because of the pervasiveness of car culture. We are willing to put up with carnage for our tender convenience. We are willing to risk crashes caused by our inattentive and selfish driving for our own tender convenience. The only people crying are the the families of the victims. America apparently can’t hear them.”

    But I am glad to see these PSAs. Maybe, just maybe…

  2. Keri, I wish I could answer. I just don’t know. I think the subtle differences between such PSAs could mean the difference between positive value and unintentional fear mongering. The difficulty is that advertising affects us all differently. If people all over the world could see all of these, perhaps one would strike just the right chord with the individual.

    I guess I figure that trying, even when they miss the mark, is a good thing.

    Despite the gravity of those vids, I am still having fun.

  3. On a smaller scale, the Orlando Sentinel has been running “PSA” graphic ads for Share the Road. They are cute little pictures of a bike and the words, and little else.

    Apparently the art director responsible for this program has limited resources.

    I had seen the YouTube presentation “COW taster 01″ for the texting-driving video and agree, it is very disturbing.

  4. That first one brought back some unpleasant memories. I’ve been strapped in and transported to the hospital twice that way. The PSA made my stomach knot up and brought tears to my eyes. It’s only an instant…and the rest of your life is changed.

    Now I’m going to make my teenage son watch it.

  5. I think the mistake is saying, “This will make people change.” Different people are motivated in different ways, so there needs to be a variety of approaches. Some will be “scared straight;” others will just laugh it off as they do a horror movie.

    Indeed, a horror movie is what I thought of when I watched the Irish one. It was tough to watch for me, but I can see some young guys saying, “Cool!”

  6. I think the first one has more impact than the 2nd one because it personalizes the shame/pain/guilt/horror of the responsible driver. all her friends die and she’s left alone with it. I think viewers can internalize the consequences. The second one only shows the perp in the courtroom.

    I like the one Mighk shared with us on a different level. It take a poke at our sick culture more than the perp. I think Andy’s comment speaks to the same issue… our cavalier attitude about the carnage of inattentive and irresponsible driving.

    But, guys… no comments about the last one?

  7. Speaking of DUI, I wonder what lessons from the culture change that has led us to be much more intolerant of drinking and driving could be applicable here?

  8. Brian makes a good point — why has the DUI rate dropped? Because MADD and others did a good job of changing the culture that made it socially acceptable to do so. Teens (and adults) drink and drive in fewer numbers because other people will think they’re stupid if they do. It’s less about risk — because it is human nature when you get behind the wheel to think you are capable of handling the situation, even if other people aren’t — than about social norms (in part reflected in increased legal penalties).

    Fear-based messaging can work, and I certainly don’t fault anyone for trying. But let’s go back to the “truth” campaign. For years, messages had been “smoking kills.” Teens couldn’t care less. But when the message was “smoking is a fast one tobacco execs are pulling on you — and cool people know better than to fall for it” — the change was immediate and significant.

    Or take AIDS. Shouldn’t the simple message that “unprotected sex could kill you” be enough? Condom use should be at 100 percent. But humans aren’t that simple, and the way we contemplate risk is complex and not always rational (or sometimes it is more rational than social messengers would like — despite all the risks I am messaged about daily, I am more likely to live to 100 than any previous generation). In fact, some studies show that messaging about less threatening STDs, like “you could have to live with herpes and genital warts for the rest of your life”, can be more effective than “you could die.”

    Fear based messaging generally works if: (1) it’s a clear and immediate threat, e.g., like a virus (2) there’s an immediate action I can take to reduce my fear, such as get a vaccine. It can also help to target someone close to the person at risk, rather than the person themselves. And the legitimacy of the source (in the mind of the receiver of the message, not the sender) is critical.

    So, will these ads slow drivers down? I’ll see when I get in my car today. For me, I think, it will mostly just add to my general fear about my teens’ driving (again, it’s human to worry more about others you care about than yourself). Here’s what makes me take my foot off the gas pedal, in my own downtown Orlando neighborhood at least: I encounter bicyclists and pedestrians there every day, and I myself walk frequently. My dog got hit by a speeding car. There used to be little kids next door and I worried about them running into the street or behind my car as I backed out of the driveway. As a result, through the years I’ve come see my neighborhood as a place for people to move around in, not a place just for cars to speed through. Plus my husband nagged at me for years to slow down.

  9. Keri wrote:
    “But, guys… no comments about the last one?”

    OK, I’ll bite…

    Wielding and displaying power feels good and natural to a young man. Spinning those wheels and speeding around town is no different than a male gorilla pounding its chest. So perhaps the little finger wave (“he’s compensating…”) might work on some guys, but you’re fighting nature. Rationalization: “Well SHE’S not impressed, but I know the other one is.”

    Instead, find other, safer ways for guys to “pound their chests” and try to make those things cool.

    Maybe: ?

  10. I was searching for another speeding PSA (which I can’t find) when I ran across the “Pinky” campaign.

    Here’s some more info on it:

    I learned another thing… young drivers must display special plates on their cars L-plate for learners and P-plate for “provisional drivers” between 18 and 21. Check out the restrictions and penalties for violations for P-plate drivers:

    Then Google “News” for “P-plate” and you’ll come up with a list of crashes caused by the young and rash. What’s interesting is that this “scarlet letter” system raises awareness of the problem: many young adults simply don’t have the judgment and restraint to behave properly with a 4000lb weapon.

    We need to start clubbing this traffic culture mercilessly. Because it is our cavalier cultural attitudes that inspire and condone the behavior.

    I think changing the culture requires a full-court press. Public awareness, education, strict enforcement, personal commitment…

    And a critical mass of citizens who just aren’t going to tolerate it anymore.

  11. In my opinion, death-based fear PSAs do not have much impact upon the people who need to be convinced. Why? Because they are in denial. “It won’t happen to me. I’m too good of a driver.”

    I’ve seen it with my own two eyes. I remember as a teenager a relative of mine who would drive drunk. And everyone knew what he was doing. He would say “I drive better drunk than most men do sober.”

    He doesn’t do that anymore. What changed? Part of it was PSA’s. Not any PSA that he saw – they didn’t change his attitude. But his family members became convinced that his behaviour had to changed. That was due in part to PSAs.

    So things happened. For example, his son once told him after heavy drinking “If you lay a finger on car keys I’m taking an awl and puncturing all four of your car tires to stop you from driving.” That worked for that evening.

    Finally, the inevitable happened. The local police saw him driving erratically, and he was jailed for drunk driving. After he got out of jail his driver’s license was suspended. When his driving privileges were eventually reinstated his relatives got really intolerant of him ever driving drunk. “You could hurt someone – or yourself.” Also, a second offense would lead to serious jail time.

    As far as I know, he never drove after drinking again.

    The PSAs were ineffective in changing his attitude. But very effective in changing everyone else’s attitude in tolerating his behaviour.

  12. Social acceptance is huge. Fear of rejection is stronger than fear of death. Because it is more real to people. And on a primal, tribal level, rejection = death.

  13. You don’t avoid doing a campaign because obstinate people won’t buy it; you just recognize that they won’t and focus on those likely to change first. Low hanging fruit.

    When Florida first started talking about making DUI illegal (hard to believe it used to be, huh?), there were popular bumperstickers that read: “Don’t Drink & Drive; You Might Hit a Bump and Spill It.” Today such a bumpersticker would be far less acceptable as humor.

  14. Keri wrote:
    “Fear of rejection is stronger than fear of death.”

    Kevin’s comment:
    I agree. Which is why the Australian PSA may be the most effective. The government is introducing a new, popular gesture. Good idea.

    In my opinion, the most effective cigarette package warnings are not the ones warning of DEATH in graphic words and photos. It is the one warning of impotence, with an appropriate photo of drooping cigarette ash. When I first saw that, I laughed. But it stuck with me.

  15. PSA only reach and affect a small percentage of the target audience, in many cases as low as single percentage points, especially when it comes to teens. Perhaps we should consider improving drivers’ education to where something is actually taught besides the basics in a week’s time, as well as raising the driving age to 18, with suitable restrictions, and introduce recurrent training for drivers on a regular basis.

    I work for a company where Safety is a priority, reducing and eliminating accidents is possible, we need to do it on our roadways.


  16. Aaron wrote:
    “…introduce recurrent training for drivers on a regular basis.”

    Kevin’s comment:
    AMEN! I believe that drivers should face a mandatory and comprehensive road test every five years. With at least a 20% failure rate. This would lead to a sudden improvement on the roads.

  17. At a recent family gathering, my uncle was telling everyone how the AARP driving class had made him a much more conscious driver. He learned things he had forgotten or maybe never knew.

    Maybe if motorists here had that kind of reinforcement every 5 years they’d stop for pedestrians in crosswalks. Or remember that right-turn-on-red isn’t an entitlement and doesn’t give you right-of-way over the other drivers with green lights. Among other things.