I spent twenty years in the road safety domain, mostly as the Chairman of the NRMA/ACT Road Safety Trust, and later as a member or chairman of several reviews of various road safety entities. Road safety is perhaps in my bones now, and certainly stays in my mind. The long-term trend in crash deaths has been downward from the 1970s (the rate is now at about a third of the deaths per 100,000 people of 1970), but deaths in the last year from road crashes came to nearly 1200, and that was an increase of around five per cent over the same period in 2018. In December 2019, 107 people died from road crashes. The long-term trend is certainly a decline, but the short-term trend is an increase, and that is a worry.
Because I am a road-safety person my own driving behaviour has become much more conservative over the years (partly because I didn’t want to see a headline in the local paper saying ‘VC tops ton’), and I lose my gruntle over appalling driving behaviour whenever I see it. I was nearly the victim of an intersection crash a couple of months ago, in the front passenger’s seat. It was my driver’s fault, and he hardly stopped apologising for the rest of the trip. I was both shaken and stirred into planning this essay, assisted by the repetition of advertisements whenever I watched cricket or tennis on television.
In one of these ads two small cars race around an apparent roundabout, perhaps photographed from a ‘drone’ directly above. The message is that it is enjoyable to drive these cars, which are bringing ‘fun’ back into driving. In another clip one of the women driving in the contest (or in another one) has what I would call a slightly manic look about her. Maybe that’s just me. Another of the series starts with a powerful racing car driving at great speed around what is presumably a test track. Following images show a 4WD at speed skidding on the dirt and dust, and a small car driving quickly up what look like hairpin bends. There is no emphasis on safety, only on speed.
Aorta do something about it, people say. Ten or more years ago I acquired a new Minister who had never heard of my organisation, though he learned quickly. When I saw another of these ads that stressed speed, power, handling and performance I asked him what the State and Territory road safety ministers thought about these ads, and he said quickly (he was always in a hurry) that there was a ruling and he would bring the matter up at their next meeting. Maybe he did, but I never found the ruling. Then I got another new Minister.
The current ads I described above so got to me (yes, I did watch a lot of tennis and cricket — at my age that is what summer is for) that I revived my notion of an essay. I rang the Commonwealth Government’s road safety people, who told me there wasn’t such a ruling, and that people like me who felt strongly should write to the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA), which had the power to instruct the pulling of the ad, if its experts agreed with you.
Now the Federation Chamber of Automotive Industries (FCAI) does have a Code (the full statement is here) that manufacturers sign up to. It’s voluntary, but it does set a standard, and some of the standards seem to me to apply to the examples I mentioned. Here are some (my emphasis in italics):
Provisions of the Code
These Sections cover advertising and marketing communications for motor vehicles:
- Unsafe driving, including reckless and menacing driving that would breach any Commonwealth law or the law of any State or Territory.
- People driving at speeds in excess of legal speed limits.
- Driving practicesor other actions which would, if they were to take place on a road or road-related area, breach any Commonwealth law or the law of any State or Territory…
- An advertisement may legitimately depict the capabilities and performance of an off-road vehicle travelling over loose or unsealed surfaces, or uneven terrain, not forming part of a road or road related area. Such advertisements should not portray unsafe driving and vehicles must not travel at a speed which would contravene the law.
Chasing another car at speed around a roundabout does seem to me an example of ‘unsafe driving’, as does doing a skidding turn around a dirt track. Both are driving practices for which the police would certainly stop you if they saw them.
Does any of this really matter? I think it does. Such advertising is targeted to the testosterone-fuelled young, as Professor Mary Sheehan found in 2006, in an exemplary study you can read here. She found also that the introduction of the FCAI Code in 2002 had reduced the frequency of advertisements that, broadly, emphasised unsafe driving. Though she did not make a lot of it, the reduction in frequency was not a great one, and there has been no subsequent study of which I am aware that shows the present rate. There is at least one graphic current example, and that one is the core of this essay.
My own boring view of road travel is that cars are there to get you and your passengers from Point A to Point B as safely as possible. I think that most of the time most drivers feel the same. There are exceptions both in drivers and in circumstances, and all of us make mistakes, even with the best intentions. So advertisements that seem to encourage drivers to drive faster than is necessary, or handle vehicles in a fashion that could cause danger to the driver, not to mention other drivers, passengers or even kids on footpaths, as in the most recent disaster, seem to me not at all in the public interest. I haven’t mentioned trucks, which are involved in about a fifth of all road-crash deaths.
I am not a fan of the Nanny State outlook, and there is a mechanism to assist people like me, so I am forwarding a copy of this essay to ACMA, this time with the name of the offending company. My view is that some companies will ‘wing it’, pushing the boundary as far as they think they can and hoping they can get the message through before there is a reaction. I hope not, in this case, even if the tennis has stopped.
(1) There’s been such a lot about the coronavirus that is scary that it is worth noting that what we have seen is national and international public health systems moving quickly to track and control the spread of the disease. Larry Kummer calls this a victory, and I think he’s right.
(2) Both the Victorian and ACT Governments have, in the past little while, enjoined us to use less air conditioning so that there is no breakdown in the distribution of electricity. Somehow it is becoming our fault that we have an electricity crisis. It is not.
MEMO to all Governments: It is the primary task of all State and Territory Governments to ensure there is a continuously reliable supply of electricity, no matter who supplies it and what it is generated from. Those are secondary matters. The first is simply crucial, because our whole society depends on it. Blackouts and reductions in electricity supply are the responsibility and usually the fault of Governments, not in any way of the citizens, who pay more and more for what they use!