The effectiveness of road safety advertising on driver behaviour

The effectiveness of road safety advertising on driver behaviour


We’ve come a long way in terms of changes to driving behaviour in the UK. More than nine in 10 people consider drink-driving unacceptable, compared to over half of men who admitted to drink-driving in 19791.

Almost nine in 10 drivers2 say it’s not safe using a mobile while driving, although our recent survey revealed more than four in 103 drivers admitting to using their phone behind the wheel. Advertising campaigns aim to provoke positive changes to driving behaviours, but do they work?

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David Anderson, Head of Advertising at the University for the Creative Arts, discussed with us the purpose of advertising, and its function within a road safety strategy. Anderson indicates that “as with most advertising campaigns, you have to be clear who it is that you are targeting and what it is that you want them to do.”

We wanted to find out whether advertising is an effective tool for educating and influencing driver behaviour, and if it works more productively on its own, or as part of a wider strategy.

Current road safety campaign strategies

Road safety campaign strategies vary, depending on the behaviour being targeted. It’s important that all road users, on and off the road, understand what actions to take in order to avoid a road accident or fatality.

Professor Jon May, from the School of Psychology at the University of Plymouth, discussed with us his recent study4 on the effectiveness of road safety advertising on behaviour. His feedback helped us to analyse current UK campaign strategies, and their impact on driver behaviour and decision making.

Targeting behaviour changes

A paper from the International Association of Traffic and Safety Sciences (IATSS), written by Hoekstra and Wegman5, discusses the effectiveness of current and new practices within road safety campaigns. They suggest that by presenting drivers with examples of how they should act, rather than how they shouldn’t, it could impact how drivers make decisions on the road.

Professor May agrees, highlighting “success is more likely with images showing the desired behaviour, taking place in the dangerous context, and followed by vivid imagery of the successful outcome.”

An example of this can be taken from Sweden, where a leading car manufacturer looked at a creative approach to stop drivers using their phone behind the wheel. ‘A Sirious Safety Message’ was a radio advert6 that could switch off incoming notifications by talking to smartphones; this ran during morning and evening rush hour. Sweden also took another approach at changing distracted driving behaviour by banning billboards7; they discovered billboards distract drivers, increasing the chances of an accident happening.

Message repetition

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Road safety campaigns tend to repeat the same message throughout – to drive safely, and not to put yourself and others at risk of an accident. However, sometimes repeating the same message over and over again isn’t enough to deter poor driving behaviour.

The USA continually pushes out campaigns to prevent young drivers using their phones behind the wheel, using shocking imagery and real-life stories8. However, fatality rates remains high, seemingly not influenced by these campaigns. This could be because there’s no laws in place making mobile use behind the wheel illegal, like in the UK.

The use of shock tactics and graphic images

Hoeskra and Wegman explain that some campaigners firmly believe people can be ‘scared straight’. This is because when people are shocked, they’ll accept the message and action being presented to them.

A campaign recently started in Australia invites drivers to meet Graham: the only person designed to survive on Australian roads9. This hit global headlines with its gruesome life-like model of a human, designed to survive being in a car crash. The campaign highlights how vulnerable the human body is to injury, reminding drivers to slow down. The shocking approach is inspired by Sweden’s ‘Vision Zero’ strategy.

Anderson firmly believes scaring an audience isn’t the most effective method of communicating and changing behaviours.

Shock tactics are the weakest form of advertising simply because of the cultural baggage we now carry. News footage, YouTube and Movies may have desensitised us over the years and we may have become less likely to respond.

Professor May highlighted that “no-one likes to remember shocking imagery, so when people are in a situation where a choice can be made, it is unlikely to come to mind.” Meaning some adverts have no effect on drivers when it’s needed most.

Countries like Switzerland take a different approach to their road safety campaigns by using light-hearted messaging. A current campaign targets young drivers and motorcyclists, and aims to encourage them to adjust their speed to their surroundings. It’s run for more than seven years now, featuring Franky the angel and his band, singing to stressed and speeding drivers – getting them to ‘Slow Down, Take It Easy’.

Dieter Luethi, Director of Funds for Road Safety at FVS Traffic Security Fund highlighted that this approach, offering solutions and ideas is more effective than shock tactics. But “a shocking campaign would have been more adequate. But only for the first year of the campaign,” as so to get peoples’ attention.

Do road safety campaigns work?

The effectiveness of advertising on driver behaviour depends on what’s being implemented, the audience that’s being targeted, and if it works in conjunction with legislation and law enforcement. The use of shock tactics could be used, but only as an attention-grabbing point, however May and Anderson don’t agree.

Professor May felt there’s “too much emphasis on warning people about the terrible negative outcomes.” People “don’t like to think about the terrible outcomes, so they forget the campaign when they are actually driving.” He suggests instead:

Adding humour and memorable phrases can help these positive outcomes of safe driving stick in the memory, and people will not suppress them when they pop into their mind while driving.

Anderson highlighted how “irreverence has long been successful in all forms of the arts and I’m a great believer that advertising could better exploit it. Humour and irreverence have also been used as a backlash to disasters, both natural and man-made, as it is a way of dealing with trauma.”

Lucy Amos, Research Advisor at Brake, commented on the UK’s need for new approaches in current advertisements: “Campaigns needs to be more evidence-based as otherwise its messaging can at best be ineffective, or at worst be seen as both insensitive and judgmental. The UK should seek to engage and inspire through its road safety campaigns. However, it’s important to avoid the perception that the audience are being patronized or talked down to.”

To summarise, UK road safety campaigns should look to push a positive message behind each serious one – giving drivers an incentive to drive safely, rather than ‘telling them off’ and scaring them again and again. Advertising campaigns alone cannot change driver behaviour, but when they run alongside law enforcement and legislation, the campaigns are more likely to succeed.

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Campaigns: learnings from around the world

Find out what makes for a successful road safety campaign, we looked into the approach Finland, Sweden and Switzerland take.

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3. Online survey conducted by Aviva, finding out about how drivers engage with their phones. Results based on 2,021 respondents, nationally represented across GB between 11-12th June 2016
4. Andrade, J., May, J., van Dillen, L., & Kavanagh, D. J. (2015). Elaborated Intrusion theory: Explaining the cognitive and motivational basis of desire. In W. Hofman & L. Nordgren (Eds.)  The psychology of desire. New York:  Guilford. pp. 17-35.
5. May, J., Kavanagh, D.J., & Andrade, J. (2015) The Elaborated Intrusion Theory of Desire- A 10-year retrospective and implications for addiction treatments. Addictive Behaviors, 44, 29-34
6. Hoekstra, T. and Wegman, F. (2010). Improving the effectiveness of road safety campaigns: Current and new practices. The Netherlands: IATSS, pp 80-86. The paper can also be accessed here

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