Throughout the summer I will watch cricket on television if I am able to, and this summer I have seen a lot of it — and very good it has been, too. And I was perforce the victim of innumerable ads for motor vehicles. Since I have a longstanding road-safety connection I viewed these with a critical eye, and decided that most of them failed my own test: they showed drivers behaving badly.
Anyone connected with road safety will feel from time to time that he or she is simply on the losing end of a game against humanity. Something like 1500 people will be killed in 2014 on our roads or because of a motor vehicle that has left the road. Along with the deaths will come tens of thousands of serious injuries that cause people to go to hospital; some of them will have perpetual harm, like acquired brain injury, that greatly reduces the quality of their lives thereafter. One of my previous Ministers told me that every time a road death occurred he felt it like a pain in the gut. I believed him, because I can have a similar experience; it is as though we have failed to prevent the death, and are responsible.
There is a brighter side. Road deaths per 100,000 people have come down astonishingly, from around 30 in 1970 to around 6 now. The cause has been a combination of better cars, tyres, roads and anti-crash devices, on the one hand, and new laws about seat-belt use, drink-driving, and speeds, on the other. Though it is hard to prove, I think there is a saner driving culture today than forty years ago, too. Children know about seat belts, and parents know about risk.
Nonetheless, I feel concerned whenever I see what I think is bad driving practice exemplified on the screen. What can anyone do about it? That same Minister told me — at least I thought he did — that the Australian ministers for road safety had a set of standards that they administered about the TV advertising of motor vehicles. I can’t find it, and I’m coming to the view that what he had said was that there was a set of standards and the ministers thought they were good ones.
The Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries (FCAI) does have a Voluntary Code of Practice for Motor Vehicle Advertising which you can find here. I think it is fine, as I read it, and there is an Advertising Standards Board (ASB) there to ‘assess compliance’ and review all public complaints. There are public complaints, and the Board deals with them. You can read the cases yourself, and there is no doubt that the ASB takes its role seriously, finding against the advertisers in many cases. What happens after that is harder to determine. The ads usually run for a brief period, so that by the time the complaint has been assessed, the ad series is possibly over.
I suppose that my best shot is to lodge my own formal complaint and see what happens. And I could do it, except that, as I read the Code, there is a lot of wriggle room. One ad. that I saw again and again showed a crew-cab utility pulling things out of dams, going quickly through a stream crossing and swerving in sand, in my view because it was going too fast. The Code has a section on unsafe driving, but my guess is that the advertiser would wriggle through my complaint. The creek crossing is not done at a really high speed, but safe practice in creek crossings is to go very slowly, just fast enough. Even if you have crossed this stream many times before, you don’t know what has occurred on the crossing since you were last there. I remember an incident in the first REDeX trial in 1954 where a camera crew asked one of the competitors who had crossed slowly to go through again and make a decent splash. He complied, made a great splash, and wrecked his transmission.
My beef is that advertisers by and large recognise the Code, but they also do their best to emphasise speed, manoeuvrability, and technical pizzazz, at the expense of safe and sensible driving. So they advertise up to the limit, trying to get away with it. And you’ll say, of course they do! They are there to sell cars, not to improve driving care. Yes, but, I say. The assumption built in to all these ads is that the car does all the thinking for you, or, if you like, that the driver has all the skills needed to navigate in these conditions. It ain’t necessarily so.
I don’t have a solution. Speed kills, but it also thrills, and we humans respond to thrill. Let me finish with another ad., which shows a father taking his family out in his new big 4WD. He races along with no consideration at all for his family, the passengers, and descends a steep and rocky mountain track, with big boulders, at a speed which throws the back-seat passengers, his children, off their seats. Returning to his home he pats the car. What his family would have thought about this episode is easy to imagine. OK, the 4WD can do it, but what sort of driver does that to his family?
I get easily irritated with these ads, because I think at once of fifteen hundred killed and the thousands injured, and feel that these ads have no place on the screens at all. Yes, I know, I’m a kill-joy…