Metropolis

Traffic Safety Ads Are Better at Making Puns Than Saving Lives

If officials want to make roads less dangerous, they should spend the money on something else.

An LED traffic sign flashes through slogans: "You are not a pumpkin don't drive smashed," "This is a sign you should buckle up," "Get your head out of your apps,"
Illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo

There’s a woman wearing all white who’s been spotted around Maryland, offering advice to strangers. “Hey ladies, no texting and crossing,” she’ll tell footgoers as they cross an intersection, or: “Hey big guy, you might be tall, but you’re no match for that van.” Encountering a driver at a crosswalk, she’ll motion her to roll down the window: “Thank you for always stopping for pedestrians when they cross.”

This is Signal Woman, a character created with funding from the Maryland Highway Safety Office. Signal Woman has her own website and Twitter and Instagram accounts, as well as a pithy slogan: “Look Alive.”

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What Signal Woman lacks is evidence that she makes Marylanders any safer. In a 2020 ranking of traffic safety tactics, the federal National Highway Traffic Safety Administration gave pedestrian safety education—which Signal Woman enthusiastically dispenses—one star out of five, reflecting “limited or no high-quality evaluation evidence.”

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Signal Woman personifies the education campaign, a centerpiece of American traffic safety for decades. Such campaigns can include advertisements and videos, like the $4 million that New York City is currently spending to scare drivers into slowing down (one video depicts pedestrians hurled backward in slow motion across the screen). They frequently incorporate social media, like NHTSA tweeting that “your best bike ride starts with putting on a helmet.” The Georgia Governor’s Office of Highway Safety has been especially creative, funding a pedestrian fashion show called “Dressed to be Seen” in 2018 before the state held a slogan competition two years later (among the winners: “Wearing a seat belt makes you look thinner” and “Don’t be a turkey and drive basted.”)

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Congress annually allocates hundreds of millions of dollars toward traffic education, awareness, and enforcement, with NHTSA distributing money to state highway safety offices that have wide latitude in how they spend it. As a result, traffic education encompasses everything from witty digital highway signage to safety car keys to people wandering the streets of Denver wearing giant eyeballs (seriously).

It’s hard to dispute the urgency of protecting American road users; traffic deaths are rising at the fastest rate on record, particularly in urban areas. On a per capita basis, walking, biking, or driving is significantly more dangerous in the United States than in other developed countries. But how helpful are the many, many education campaigns found across the United States? How many lives are they saving?

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Thoughtfully designed and implemented, education programs can and do induce safer travel behaviors, especially if they target a specific audience with new and actionable information. But all too often, education campaigns reiterate messages people already know, like the dangers of speeding or texting while driving, or emphasize humor or fear, which generally fails to shift behavior. Worse, they put the ultimate onus for safety on the individual, sapping resources that could go toward more systemic solutions.

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Education campaigns have been convenient for law enforcement, car companies, and traffic engineers content with America’s road safety status quo. But as roadway deaths surge, they appear to be less and less useful to Americans on the road. And figuring out what will work to keep people safe … well, that lesson hasn’t yet stuck.

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The history of American road safety education goes back almost as far as the automobile itself. In the 1920s, safety campaigns frequently focused on keeping children out of streets, which had historically been their play spaces. A poster in the 1930s underscored the risks of drinking and driving with an illustration of a skull, a gas pump hose, and a whiskey bottle. In 1964, a coalition including the National Safety Council and the Chicago Police Department produced a video about defensive driving, which instructed viewers to “give way and live, rather than always asserting your driving rights.”

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Education campaigns played a role in the rapid adoption of child car seats in the 1970s and 1980s, one of the great success stories of automobile safety. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the use of a car seat reduces likelihood of injury for children by more than 70 percent compared with a seat belt alone. Starting with Tennessee in 1978—where just 8 percent of children were placed in car seats at the time—all 50 American states adopted car seat laws by 1985. As the laws were enacted, education campaigns using print advertisements and billboards helped foster a new social norm among parents, an audience highly motivated to take action. Car seat usage is now over 90 percent.

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“What we learned from car seats,” said Jeff Michael, a former NHTSA official who is now a distinguished scholar at Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health, “is that if people are unaware of the law, then informing them of the social expectation is useful.”

Seth LaJeunesse, a senior research associate at the University of North Carolina’s Highway Safety Research Center, agreed that car seat adoption was a triumph, but he cautioned against giving too much credit to education alone. “Local fire department staff would show people how to install a child seat, and how to strap the child in,” he said. “Those programs were offered in lockstep with the messaging.”

This is a key lesson about education campaigns: They are more effective when they target a particular group of people (such as parents) and lower barriers to taking the recommended action. The availability of trusted, knowledgeable fire department staff made it easier for parents to follow the plea to use a car seat.

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There is a second takeaway from car seat adoption: Campaigns are typically more successful when they share information that is unfamiliar to the intended audience, as the safety benefits of car seats were in the 1970s. (In contrast, most people today already know you shouldn’t text while driving or break the speed limits. “If you ask people if they think speeding is a problem, most say yes,” said Jessica Cicchino, vice president of research at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. “But most will say they still do it anyway.”)

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Like car seats, seat belt usage is often cited as a safety education win. North Carolina launched the first “Click It or Ticket” campaign in 1993, with a message that recommended action (use a seat belt) while warning of enforcement (you’re risking a citation if you don’t). NHTSA took Click It or Ticket national in 2000, and the program is still going strong today with a resource page containing social media, video, logos, and sample press releases.

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Click It or Ticket is “one of the most successful highway safety campaigns of all time,” said Jonathan Adkins, the executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association, which represents state highway safety offices. “In 1994, 58 percent of the country is wearing a seat belt, and it’s now over 90 percent,” he said. “The only thing that has changed is Click It or Ticket.” (His assertion is debatable; UNC’s LaJeunesse noted that seat belt use was already rising before the campaign began, and car companies likely increased uptake by installing alarms that sound if the driver isn’t buckled.)

“If you do a press event about an event, and you have a police chief explaining to people why they’re doing seat belt checkpoints around town,” said Jeff Michael, “now everybody gets the message.”

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But many education campaigns don’t offer supportive services, or threaten punishment, or even contain new information—as anyone who has driven by a “Please Drive Carefully” highway sign (or encountered Maryland’s Signal Woman) will recognize. Such stand-alone education campaigns presume that general awareness alone can shift roadway habits—an assumption that is shaky at best.

In 2008, the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine’s Transportation Research Board published a landmark study that surveyed a vast array of traffic safety research. The authors did not pull their punches. “The simplistic assumption [of roadway safety campaigns] is that if individuals are made aware of behaviors that will enhance their personal health or safety and urged to adopt these behaviors, they will do so,” they wrote. “Seemingly logical, this sequence of events is unlikely to happen.”

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The conclusion: “Information-only programs are unlikely to work, especially when most of the audience already knows what to do. Therefore, highway safety messages conveyed in signs, pamphlets, brochures, on buttons, etc. … are unlikely to have any effect on behavior.”

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In other words, much of traffic safety education—campaigns that simply convey a message that is already familiar—is pointless.

NHTSA itself has published similar findings. The agency has issued multiple editions of the encyclopedic “Countermeasures That Work,” surveying research about techniques to reduce crashes. Most recently published in 2020, the guide examines education campaigns alongside tactics such as alcohol ignition interlocks (which earn the maximum five stars, or “demonstrated to be effective”) to traffic violator schools (one star, the minimum, or “limited or no high-quality evaluation evidence”).

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Many education approaches fare poorly in NHTSA’s assessment. Communication programs intended to reduce distracted driving, improve older driver safety, or educate drivers about pedestrian safety all receive the lowest possible rating. Yet such campaigns remain widespread among states. “There are many safety programs based on wishful thinking instead of science,” said Cicchino.

It’s not just repeated reminders that fail to improve safety; fear doesn’t appear to work either. Texas’ “Faces of Drunk Driving” campaign, for instance, vividly features people who were killed or disfigured in crashes. In 2019, the Governors Highway Safety Association gave an award to South Dakota for its “Jim Reaper” campaign that included videos of an actor dressed as the Grim Reaper hanging out at bars and house parties, representing “the face of death, a threat that’s always watching and waiting for you to make a mistake.”

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The benefits of such appeals are dubious. “There is research showing that negative messages don’t work,” said Jennifer Homendy, the chair of the National Transportation Safety Board. UNC’s LaJeunesse agreed, noting that people tend to tune them out: “The majority of the public will not see it as applying to them.”

Similarly, there is no reason to think that a creative or humorous campaign will be better at boosting safety. “Being snappy for being snappy—we don’t see any evidence that can change behavior,” said Cicchino. Still, safety agencies seem to love a good pun, like Colorado DOT’s highway sign reading “Get Your Head Out of Your Apps.” “There’s this belief among officials that they’d be effective if they just came up with something catchier, and more people saw it,” said LaJeunesse.

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Certain safety education approaches actually increase the likelihood of crashes. Researchers found that highway messaging boards in Texas displaying real-time traffic death totals led to an uptick in collisions due to the heightened risk of distraction. Twenty-eight states currently use such signs.

With so much traffic safety education funding seemingly wasted, you might expect Congress to add new constraints on how the money is spent, or for NHTSA to require state highway safety offices to shift funds toward tactics that are known to work. But no. In reality, even conducting a post-mortem evaluation of a safety campaign is rare (perhaps because research that exists is so frequently disregarded). As a result, state agencies that repeatedly direct money to pointless campaigns face minimal risk of blowback.

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As Homendy put it, “We just don’t have an approach of asking, ‘Hey, is this working?’ ”

Traffic safety officials obviously don’t want more people to die. But biases and resistance to change can distort program decisions.

For instance, public officials may trust their own judgment about what changes behavior, even when research suggests they are mistaken. “Local law enforcement could decide ‘Hey, jaywalking is a major issue,’ and then they create a slogan campaign or an enforcement operation, and seek state funding for it,” said LaJeunesse—even if NHTSA’s own research shows that such tactics are futile.

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Political power plays a role as well. After decades of government spending on education campaigns, a small army of organizations and consultants now works with NHTSA and state DOTs to implement those programs—and lobby for maintaining funding with a minimum of strings attached. Last December, as a spike in American traffic deaths placed the traffic safety status quo under a harsh spotlight, the Governors Highway Safety Association issued a report defending the importance of “behavioral safety,” a term that includes education, communications, and enforcement.

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GHSA has a point; education is a component of a multipronged “safe system” approach to traffic safety that includes law enforcement, road design, and vehicle operations. But education has been a dominant tool of the American road safety establishment, crowding out other strategies. “No reasonable person would say that there is no role for education. It’s a matter of proportion,” said Jeff Michael. “We ought to see the focus on infrastructure and car design increasing, and education campaigns decreasing.”

The good news is that there are plenty of compelling traffic safety strategies available to officials ready and willing to adjust those proportions. Rather than chiding drivers not to speed, what if we designed our roads and streets to be slower, or if we mandated intelligent speed governors, as the European Union has done, or installed more automatic speed cameras, an approach that earned the maximum five stars in NHTSA’s Countermeasures That Work? Instead of reminding drivers to “please drive carefully,” what if we disincentivized the oversize trucks and SUVs that are most likely to kill upon impact (a move that NHTSA recently declined to take)?

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Although these interventions could save more lives than an education campaign, they risk antagonizing powerful political forces. Oversize SUVs and trucks, for instance, put other road users at risk, but they’re also immensely profitable for car companies. Speed cameras undercut the role of law enforcement officers, and many drivers detest them—much as they loathe the road diets and speed cameras that have been shown to reduce traffic deaths.

In comparison, an education campaign is far less likely to encounter pushback. “It’s something that seems easy to do, something we’ve been doing from the start [of the automobile era],” said Cicchino. Such campaigns place road users—not road designers, safety officials, car companies, or law enforcement—in the spotlight. “It gives the impression that the only person who can be held responsible for road safety is the driver,” said Homendy.

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By holding individuals accountable for road safety, the United States has postponed an overdue reckoning with systemic factors that make crashes more likely to occur, and to be fatal when they do. Recent data from NHTSA shows that the situation is only becoming more dire: 2021 was the deadliest year for road users since 2005, with deaths rising 10.5 percent, the fastest ever recorded.

In announcing those troubling figures, NHTSA pointed to the hundreds of millions of dollars the agency will once again spend funding state safety efforts. Cicchino sees little reason to expect a turnaround: “If we keep telling people not to do something, but we see the same outcome, we should know this isn’t the best way to change behavior.”

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