Recently, the DOE (Northern Ireland’s equivalent to THINK! road safety) released a new road safety advertisement to tackle the problem of speeding and the deaths it can cause. If you haven’t seen it yet, you can find it here. As someone who has been in a horrific car accident myself – and not one caused by speeding – I hate these ads. I hate being reminded of an extremely traumatic event, I hate the ‘gore porn’ element to some of the shots, and I even hate the sub-par soundtrack. A sad acoustic version of ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’ to accompany watching children being crushed to death by a car is a little too on the nose for my taste. Something about these advertisements to me continually feels cartoonish and extreme, almost like a caricature of itself. I’m not alone in this either, it seems, as Northern Irish YouTuber Gedzilla is always quick to submit  parody versions of the DOE ads. But what else do you expect from Northern Ireland? As a country, we are cynical and satirical in the face of horrendous atrocities. As a place dogged by sectarianism, complex identity issues and a history of violence, this is perhaps unsurprising.
My English teacher once told us a story of when a car was highjacked during the Troubles and driven into the storefront window of a bar. There were screams and shouts and the sounds of windows and glasses and bones breaking. Then there was an eerie silence, as the wreckage of the car settled into the wreckage of the bar, and the dust and debris from the demolished walls began to settle and the cries of pain died down. Then, a chipper voice crowed out “…taxi for Kaitlin?” Dark humour is our ‘thing’.

I can already hear the philosophers crying, ‘but what about the greater good, who cares if some people are upset if this stops further deaths?’ As much as I don’t care for Peter Singer generally, I will say that my personal beliefs do tend to lean in a more utilitarian direction. If there was proof that these ads reduced the amount of car accident related deaths, I could happily suffer through them. But I have not been able to find any research done into this issue, by the DOE or any other Northern Irish body, on whether or not this aggressive ad campaigning has been successful. For as long as I can remember, violent road safety ads have been around – here’s a video that was released in 1995, a year after I was born. Yet according to the DOE, since 2000, 28 children have been killed as a result of a road safety accident. Interestingly enough, the year that ‘Thoughts’ road safety ad was released, there were 6,690 road accidents and 139 people killed. The subsequent year there was 7,325 accidents and 159 people killed.

These advertisements certainly raise awareness, but whether they actually reduce the number of road safety related deaths is another matter. In a study done by Cowpe (1989) on the effectiveness of a series of advertisements about the dangers of chip pan fires, an important distinction was made between ‘attitudes’ and ‘behaviours’. Basically, there is often a discrepancy between what we think (attitudes) and what we do (behaviour); despite the fact we know that something is wrong, we sometimes do it anyway. In this experiment, selected areas in England were shown an advertisement where someone caused a chip pan fire, the scene more or less shows the chip pan bursting into flames and the entire kitchen consumed within seconds and the person set alight. The ad ended with a simple, but chilling ‘Of course, if you don’t overfill your chip pan in the first place, you won’t have to do any of this’.

Where this was shown, in some areas the fire brigade reported chip pan fires were reduced by a quarter, and overall the estimated reduction in all areas the ads were shown was about 12%. While it isn’t much, it’s still something. However, there’s a difference between the chip pan ads and our DOE road safety ads; in the participants’ surveys, individuals reported that the reason why they did not cause chip pan fires was because they ‘now had more accurate information on how to prevent chip pan fires’. This makes sense, that in the 80’s when chip pans were relatively new technology that there was a epidemic of chip pan fires. But this is the 2010’s, cars have been around for over a century, and anyone with a modicum of common sense knows that speeding is dangerous. We have the cultural attitude that cars are dangerous and speeding is bad and accidentally killing people is a very real and terrifying possibility, but we aren’t changing our behaviour and slowing down when we take that dodgy corner on a country road.

Perhaps it’s because Northern Ireland is desensitised to brutality and bloodiness, perhaps it’s because when confronted with ads like these, our first reaction is to create a spoof viral video. Maybe the DOE just aren’t worth taking seriously any more. ‘Boy racers’ are always the villain in these road safety ads, but according to research in 2012, young men were only the second highest group on the road deaths chart. The highest group, actually accounting for 50% of the deaths, were people aged 60+. In fact, 16-29 year olds only accounted for 20% of deaths, and 30-59 year olds accounted for 31% of deaths. Ask around, talk to any young driver on the road today, they will be able to tell you from personal experience that the most dangerous and reckless drivers they encounter are middle-aged cranky men (and/or taxi drivers) who feel entitled to the road because they have been driving longer. But I suppose boy racers make for more obvious antagonists for road safety ads.

There is next to no concrete, causal evidence that shows these shock-tactic advertisements actually reduce the number of car crash related deaths. But there is a long list of other tactics that has been proven widely successful – improved road conditions, proper signage, improved emergency services response times, more speed cameras, a system to review licenses for people aged 60+. Maybe the DOE might want to consider allocating their budget differently, it is almost laughable to be told ‘you need to drive more carefully’ on roads that are barely in driving condition. I understand that this is a concept new to Northern Ireland, but terror and doom and gloom aren’t the only ways to achieve your goals. In the mean time, while I try to avoid being triggered for Post-traumatic stress disorder, I would advise the DOE to at least update their website. My 12 year old cousin armed with Microsoft Paint and WordArt could create a more aesthetically-pleasing and easy-to-navigate site.



Article courtesy of Naomh Gibson from her blog Stuff and Things