Bad car ads

By February 4, 2020Other

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!

Join the discussion 16 Comments

  • Lauchlan McIntosh says:

    Unfortunately this type of advertising doesn’t seem to go away. The car companies don’t show their employees hooning around the works car park, to make coming to work “exciting”, it is much easier to encourage their customers to be risk takers on roads not built for such purpose. The race track is built differently to the ordinary road; one way, barriers, smooth tarmac, safety capsule for the driver, no other road users etc. Maybe if we had fully independent investigation into some crashes we would find these ads “encouraged” the car owner to test the conditions and as a result the manufacturer not the driver should be accountable.
    As for AdStandards they rely entirely on complaints and do not proactively manage the “Codes”. By the time the complaints are considered, the ads have been withdrawn, no penalties are made. Penalties for breaches should hurt, why not twice the advertising spend from the ad that breaches the code, to be spent on saving lives and injuries. Car companies pride themselves on workplace safety performance, why encourage their customers to take risks on roads not fit for for that risk?

    • Boxer says:

      But Lauchlan, the car companies don’t show their employees smoking their tyres around the works car park because, so far as I can see, car manufacturers’ employees (a) don’t drive to work, they catch the bus, (b) the car designers don’t have drivers licences anyway because they live in mega cities and holiday internationally in tour groups or ocean cruises, and (c) their engineers are generally recruited from the gaming software fraternity.

  • Patrick says:

    I think part of the problem involves the psychology of young people especially. The first fact taught to any young motorist should be that motor vehicles are not toys .. they are potentially lethal machines and must be treated as such. Secondly, discipline, patience & commonsense are necessary for survival on the roads. Thirdly, head on collisions are often fatal even within the legal speed limits because the energy of impact is doubled and internal organs are ruptured by the deceleration involved. I also wonder how many drivers are using illicit drugs and or alcohol prior to driving. The penalties need to be steep enough to be a deterrent, points on licence, loss of licence, driving bans, fines, confiscation of vehicle, custodial sentencing, mandatory rehabilitation from addiction etc.
    Advertisements may be part of the problem but driver education & attitudes are pivotal.

    Many years ago, our daughter wanted to drive from Canberra to Newcastle, at night, through the rain, … a couple of days after passing her licence test! The answer was a definite NO. She had no experience of driving at night, driving on high speed highways, driving through rain etc. Otherwise 007 !

  • bb says:

    It is interesting as you say that in the past road deaths were much larger per hundred thousand. This is a subject I used to follow very closely and when you look at it people certainly die on the roads but if you look at the per 100,000 km travelled is really quite low and particularly in Canberra. A fact of living is that it will kill you! Why I lost interest in it was that it is not that important in the terms of deaths. A for instance is suicide what is it now three times the road deaths? Smoking was about 17,000 I think not sure about alcohol but in the many thousands. I know the tragedy of it and how it affects those who remain but the figures are greatly overemphasised. This year we were spared the alarm the Christmas period about the carnage on the roads. I had noted for many years even though the deaths were emphasised at this time the rate really didn’t change much. Despite much increased travel at the time. The media this year had the fires to occupy them. The decrease in road deaths is an incredible success compared to the 50s and 60s why no congratulations? I think I know.

  • Aynsley Kellow says:

    It’s an interesting subject!

    One question to ask of the data indicating a recent upward spike is whether the deaths were of drivers and passengers of their cars – or the occupants of cars not at fault

    I recommend the work of John Adams on this, both his ‘Risk and Freedom’ and his later, more generic book simply title ‘Risk’ (which nevertheless covers, inter alia, road safety. John emphasises the cultural dimension of risk – that our disposition towards risk alters the settings on what he terms our ‘risk thermostat’ via which we balance risk and rewards.

    He points out the problems with compulsory seat belt policies, which were adopted widely after the perceived success of this policy in Victoria. But most other jurisdictions showed the same decline with no policy! The answer was that the policy coincided with the 1973 oil crisis and policy measures to limit motor vehicle travel, so whatever the merits of the policy, it was adopted on the basis of spurious research.

    John points out that seat belts (and especially airbags) can simply displace the risks onto the occupants of other vehicles, cyclists and pedestrians. If drivers feel safer, they will adjust their risk thermostat and drive with less care. Public choice theorist Gordon Tulloch captured this with what became known as the ‘Tulloch Spike’. Rather than airbags (and certainly driver only airbags), Tulloch proposed in a thought experiment that there should be a spike in the steering wheel which, upon serious impact, would discharge and execute the driver.

    Correct risk perception is vital, and this would make the driver more risk averse.
    Our fellow political scientist, the late Aaron wildavsky, captured all this with a pithy aphorism: ‘The secret of safety lies in danger.’

    This is the logic underlying the ‘Volvo driver problem’ – renowned for both the safety of their cars and the carelessness of their drivers. (They even embraced this a few years back with an advertising campaign embracing ‘Bloody Volvo driver!)

    Another factor would therefore suggest itself: the increasing sale, registration and use of SUVs or 4x4s. I don’t have recent figures as I haven’t taught this for a long time, but the trend towards ‘Toorak Tractors’ was an acknowledged issue 15 yers back, especially because women were buying them for their perceived safety. The perception used to be misplace, because many of the old ones had a rigid chassis rather than being built to crumple and absorb energy, so they were not safer for drivers. I suspect this has improved. Problem was, they increased the risk for drivers and occupants of small cars something like 28-fold.

    I think four dead children in Wester Sydney at the weekend attest to the perceived invulnerability felt by the intoxicated driver of a 4×4.

    • Boambee John says:


      One of the so far latgely unacknowledged risks associated with EVs is their lack of an audible cue for pedestrians. An acquaintance has one, and commented that the silent engine makes it difficult to be aware that the engine is running. Pedestrians do not hear tgem approaxhing, and can step out unaware of tge danger.

  • Kneel says:

    It would be helpful to focus on the metrics used, their definitions and the statistics thereof that are used.
    In this light, deaths per population is not the best – better to use per passenger km, as this covers exposure too.
    And it would seem that getting below about 1 or 2 per billion passenger km is very difficult.
    One example of why this sort of thing is important:
    I asked the (then) RTA to clarify their “speeding is responsible for >50% of road deaths”, because their definition of “speeding” was either of exceeding the posted speed limit OR driving faster than conditions allowed, even if not exceeding the speed limit. They responded that it was 1 exceeding posted vs 7 exceeding conditions. So using this stat as a reason to punish exceeding the limit harshly, to advertise against speeding etc (ie, targeting exceeding the posted limit) could, at best, improve things by around 14% or so, while doing nothing for the other 86% or so.
    Sounds very much to me like making important what you can measure, instead of measuring what’s important.

    • Boxer says:

      Contrast the approach to road safety, which is a law enforcement “gotcha” issue, with the approach to industrial safety.

      Industrial safety focusses upon finding the causes of accidents and aims to rectify problems, mainly to reduce waste and cost (oh, and save lives too).
      Road safety is overly simplistic, and doesn’t rigorously examine issues, because it is ultimately looking for simple regulations that can be easily enforced. Everyone wants to save lives, but using a legalistic snap-trap enforcement process operated by the police means we don’t look closely enough at complex causes, so that we can all learn how to reduce risk.

      A road accident is investigated to determine who was at fault so that someone can be punished, or made to pay for the damage. An industrial accident is examined to find a way to prevent reoccurrence.

    • Aynsley Kellow says:

      Passenger-kms is the correct measure for comparison. There are charts of comparative risk, though the ones I know are getting a bit dated, as I have not been working in this area for a while. One I can remember was by Paul Slovic, showing activities that would increase your risk of death by 1 in a million. Travel by bicycle was 30x more dangerous than by car! For this reason, I always chuckle when cycling advocates encourage people to take it up for their health.
      As with cancer risks, the data often needs to be standardised for age (and gender). The relative safety of road and air travel is a case in point. Air used to be safer if you if you were a 25 year old mail, but not if you were 40 – for the reasons Don sets out.

  • Boxer says:

    There is a kind of self-defeating ethos at play in car design in relation to safety. This relates to Aynsley’s comment above.

    Cars have become noiseless, for the driver, so we have no idea how fast we are going or what the engine revs are unless we look at an instrument.
    Cruise control, even in the city, becomes a tactic to minimise speeding fines, but a car on cruise has no ability to anticipate near term future events.
    There are so many alarms to warn us of almost everything around the car (proximity sensors and controllers, drifting out of the lane etc) that we can almost do something else while driving.
    Having become used to the alarms, we ignore them all, even the ones that might have useful information to impart.
    Automatic braking and steering, precursors to autonomous vehicles, make the driver even more easily distracted by other things – their phones, for example.

    By trying to make the interaction between the machine and its operator as effortless as possible, while simultaneously trending towards gadgetry which reminds me of a mobile phone, the actual operation of 1-2 tonnes of steel and plastic in motion is being downplayed, which reduces driver participation. Contrast this with a heavy plant operator using a complex machine to perform a difficult task – a machine like a backhoe or a tree harvester requires the operator to make many decisions per minute and the machine’s arm becomes a very real extension of the operator’s body.

    If you are one of the minority (?) who consider driving to be an interesting activity in its own right, try explaining that concept to the majority of drivers who consider all driving to be a burden at best, and an intolerable waste of time at worst. People who enjoy driving seem to prefer cars that require decisions about engine speed, vehicle speed, gear ratio (eh? what’s that?), traction control, anticipation of opportunities and imminent threats, and just the pleasure of making a large tool do what you want it to. If you are amongst the majority of car buyers who want everything to done for you in your car, then you probably won’t even know what I am getting at. Each car you buy will be more boring than the one before. Which is a pity; maybe just catch the bus or call an uber in future.

    • Aynsley Kellow says:

      John Adams is very strong on this point. Give a driver ABS and traction control and they will tend to drive more aggressively.

      Congestion also helps. Smeed’s Law (accidents inversely proportional to traffic density) shows why more deaths occur on country roads and in places like Sierra Leone where cars are less common – or on the US interstate system, designed for safety, but more lethal than something like the M1 in Britain, which is frenetic.

      The interactive nature of human behaviour is on display everywhere. Rudd’s Pink Batts were supposed to save energy, but a good analysis by someone in SA (can’t remember) showed that many recipients simply banked the improvement in thermal efficiency and enjoyed better thermal comfort at the same cost rather than saving energy.

      Same went for the alcopops tax. Making premixed drinks of known strength more expensive resulted in teen drinkers self mixing from bottles of vodka and consuming unknown quantities – binge drinking was exacerbated.

  • Boxer says:

    Aynsley, point by John Adams relates to another anecdote.
    A friend was given a voucher for his birthday to drive a few laps of an Australian racing circuit in a V8 supercar. This driving is done with an experienced race driver in the passenger seat, supervising and advising.

    My friend related how his supervising co-driver commented that since the advent of ABS and traction control, most drivers can’t drive. The supercars don’t come fitted with the gadgetry. Drivers have no idea of picking a line through a corner, managing their speed, and using throttle, and brakes to control the vehicle, because they grown up in powerful “point and shoot” cars.

    The point Don made, about using vehicle speed to attract buyers, is occurring while driving skill is declining due to technological gadgetry. Cars have decreased the drivers’ abilities to detect the limits.

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