Fear focus having little effect on road safety

This powerful New Zealand road safety ad went viral, but new research shows the fear factor may not be getting through to motorists.
This powerful New Zealand road safety ad went viral, but new research shows the fear factor may not be getting through to motorists.

Governments could be wasting money on ineffective and expensive fear-driven road safety campaigns featuring mangled cars and bloodied bodies, finds new Australian research – the latest to question whether these ads can save lives.

Five people died on NSW roads this long weekend, with police warning that double demerits were in place for speeding and risky behaviour such as mobile phone use.

The study argues road safety campaigns that target penalties and points are more effective than those highlighting blood and bingles.

Why? Most drivers are more likely to believe they can control the occurrence of fines than a serious crash.

Yet in 2016, 1295 people died on Australian roads, a 7.5 per cent increase compared to 2015.

After decades of reductions, the spike prompted the federal minister Darren Chester to last month announce an inquiry – he worried that we are “too accepting of the fact 1300 Australians will die on our roads and tens of thousands will be injured this year”.

Researchers conducted surveys to find out if participants believed they could control their exposure to “negative road outcomes” including fines and car crashes.

On average, participants rated their confidence at six out of seven for being able to control risky behaviour such as speeding. But when asked about their control over a car crash, they gave it a 3.6. When asked about ability to control the likelihood of getting a fine, they gave it a rating of six.

Professor of road safety at University of NSW Raphael Grzebieta said it was unfortunate a number of policies  were often driven by “populist social media, agenda pushers, marketing and public relations”.

NSW road safety researcher Julie Hatfield, who sat on an expert panel some years ago that reviewed campaigns using fear, said it was then fairly well-known that using fear didn't work very well.

“Most people simply can't imagine themselves in that sort of situation. Or they think that's something that could only happen to someone else – with most people overestimating their driving ability,” said Dr Hatfield.

“Getting a fine is not such a dire outcome because you don't have to protect your whole view by denying it. But the idea of dying in a crash is not in anyone's world view, and not something that anyone wants to imagine.”


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