Minnesota Needs Better Public Safety Advertisements

The annual British Arrows Awards were a good reminder that the best thing on TV is sometimes the advertisements, and how good public safety advertisements in other English-speaking countries are. (Unfortunately the showings are sold out until the end of their run on 4 January)

Here, for example, is one of the award winning ads:

It’s funny, it gets your attention, and it imparts a message that that viewer is responsible without blaming them.

Here’s a slightly different example of this style of public safety advertising, from New Zealand:

Some of the key elements of this advertisement are similar, despite the more graphic and depressing tone. You, the viewer, are responsible for avoiding the horrible personal consequences of drinking and driving. The key phrase “if you drink and drive you’re a bloody idiot” has been repeated across many different advertisements with the same basic message, and has become a phrase you’ll hear in actual conversation in New Zealand and Australia. Indeed the “If you drink and drive you’re a bloody idiot” campaign began in the 1980s.

Compare with the anti-drink-driving advertisements we have in Minnesota which are infrequent and ineffective.

Can you make me one of those?

Here’s some more of what the Department of Public Safety has on YouTube. If you watch TV at this time of year, and around Labor Day, you’ll see some Department of Public Safety advertisements saying there are extra highway patrols, so if you drink and drive there’s a greater chance of being caught. The implicit messages here are misplaced. There’s the implication that drinking and driving is only a seasonal problem. There’s the implication that the consequences you should think about are not your underlying behavior, but the probability of being caught. And all the messages are implicit. There’s no direct condemnation of drinking and driving, no implication that the viewer should change what they do.

There’s a billboard which I’ve seen lately beside several Minnesota roads, stating that 1 in 7 Minnesota drivers has a DWI and asking if the lights coming towards you are one of them. Again, the messages here are ineffective. Drinking and driving is presented as something that other people do, and that what the reader should do is fear other people’s behavior. Now, there’s a grain of truth in that. A little more fear and caution behind the wheel is probably a good thing. Maybe the idea is that people will be concerned enough about the historical fact that other people have driven drunk that they’ll stop drinking and driving themselves or persuade their friends and relatives to do likewise. That’s a mighty long chain of reasoning between an advertisement and behavioral change. A DWI conviction is a bad thing, but it’s a mere historical legal artifact that doesn’t actually make the roads more risky now or in the future. What makes roads risky is people (possibly you!) drinking and driving now. That’s the behavior that needs to be changed.

Finally, lets consider the recent Metro Transit campaign “Safety is a shared responsibility” about safety around light rail. The message here manages to be both patronizing and not particularly effective in leaving people with a sense of the consequences of their own actions. I think the idea that Metro Transit wants to convey is that the train will kill you, so don’t do stupid things near trains. Why not just say that or show that? Here are a couple of Australian advertisements that makes the same point much more directly but also in a way that’s much more respectful of the viewer.

The graphic and personal road safety advertisements you’ll see frequently in Britain, Australia, and New Zealand have been shown by researchers [links: world bank, vox] to be much more effective in changing people’s behavior than the ones we have in Minnesota that focus on legal consequences. Sustained campaigns to change attitudes about drinking and driving have been important in other developed countries achieving greater reductions in traffic deaths than the United States.

The central psychological problem in getting people to not drink and drive (or not to wander mindlessly across railroad lines) is that most of the time people do those things they live to tell the tale. Even when the chance of bad things happening changes the probabilities are still in the range where people can’t really tell the difference. The change of dying in a road accident are 1/3 now of what they were in 1970 (4.5 in 1970 to 1.5 deaths now per million miles traveled). That’s important change, and we can still do better, but the probabilities are indistinguishable in daily life. What hasn’t changed are the bad consequences of driving drunk (or stepping in front of a train).

Raising people’s awareness of the personal consequences of their actions is central to effective public safety advertising. Thus the key message of these advertisements is that something horrible could happen to you or people you love if you do something (drive drunk, walk in front of a train). Getting arrested is bad, and avoiding arrest motivates some people to change their behavior. But most people are more motivated to change their behavior by the potential irreversible personal consequences of bad behavior. You might be injured, your family member might die, your family might disown you for killing a loved one. Demonstrating these bad things requires graphic advertisements of mangled bodies and sad people. Billboard line-ups of stern cops who might arrest you aren’t that effective.

So we need much better road safety advertising in Minnesota (and the rest of the country). It would be nice to say that we could just use the effective English language advertisements from other countries. But there’s just one problem. Several of those countries drive on the left, and driving on the left really is a very risky behavior in Minnesota. The campaign messages and scripts, however, have been shared across many different countries. Let’s adopt them for America.

Evan Roberts

About Evan Roberts

Evan Roberts is an Assistant Professor of Population Studies and the History of Medicine at the University of Minnesota, where he teaches and researches demography, labor and urban issues. He counts it as a successful week if he has run more miles than he has driven. Connect on twitter @evanrobertsnz or now Mastodon @evanrobertsnz@econtwitter.net