Road Rules: Why doesn’t the government reduce crashes with education videos?

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Question: If you want to stop driving drunk, or speeding, or texting and driving, or not wearing a seatbelt, why doesn’t the government make more videos like what I watched in driver’s education? You know, the ones with the graphic car crashes. That’ll get their attention.

Answer: I’ve heard variations on this question from plenty of people, and while the motivation to improve driving behavior is commendable, the approach is misguided. You might be asking yourself, “But if the approach is misguided, then why did driver’s ed classes use them and why has the government made so many traffic safety commercials with car crashes?” The short answer is, we were wrong.

There’s no doubt that watching a public service announcement featuring a tragic car crash can provoke emotion. And when you get the feeling, you think the message is working. But the real measure of an effective traffic safety message isn’t how it makes you feel; it’s whether or not it causes someone to make safer driving decisions.

Scare tactics just aren’t that effective at changing actual behavior, and they depend on exploiting peoples’ emotions, which seems like a crummy way to get people to change. For some people, often the people most at risk, that emotional exploitation results in them ignoring, or even rejecting the safety message. Scare tactics also tend to focus on extremes and worst-case scenarios. This has the effect of both normalizing the negative behavior and causing people to think that the terrible outcomes won’t happen to them.

There are real traffic safety issues to be concerned about, as mentioned in the original question, but fear and shock have their limits. If a little fear in a message is helpful, more isn’t better. Awareness that something is dangerous, like texting and driving, is helpful in decision-making; being so shocked by a message that it paralyzes your decision-making is obviously not.

So what does work? Let’s start by recognizing that in spite of the harms caused by traffic crashes, goodness (and by that I mean our cultural values that support health and safety) exists in our communities. So let’s try to grow those values. In fact, most drivers regularly engage in safe driving practices.

Here are some examples in our state:

• 93 percent of vehicle occupants wear a seat belt

• 78 percent of people don’t drive after drinking

• 85 percent people don’t drive after using cannabis

• 91 percent of drivers keep their focus on the road

Next, let’s balance hope and concern. While most of us make safe driving choices, the few who don’t are responsible for far too many fatal crashes. We have to both acknowledge the consequences of high-risk behaviors, and recognize the culture of safety that most of us value.

Then, let’s connect this to our community. Making safe driving decisions isn’t just about you getting home; it’s also about your family, your friends, your neighbors.

Over the past decade or more, many safety organizations across the country have been moving away from scare tactics and embracing the methods I just mentioned. If you’re curious about what this looks like in our state, take a look at the Washington Traffic Safety Commission’s latest effort, called “Together We Get There,” at togetherwegetthere.com. As the name suggests, you’ll see messages focused on how we can watch out for and protect each other on our roads.

Yes, getting arrested and getting in a crash are real possibilities when engaging in high-risk driving behaviors. But the research suggests that what really will motivate us to drive safely is less scare and more care. Okay, that was a terrible little rhyme. But it’s true.

Doug Dahl is a manager with the Washington Traffic Safety Commission, Region 11 and publishes TheWiseDrive.com.

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