I am a communicator, by profession and nature. So it frustrates me to no end when I see communications about areas I care about not only badly done, but communicate the opposite message of what is intended. Example A: the D.C. Metro area’s pedestrian and bicycle safety campaign known as Street Smart, which manages to miss the point so severely that it’s passed through the other side and become bizarrely dangerous.
Most pedestrian and bicycle safety campaigns suffer from one major problem – they try to scare people into behaving well. Instead of trying to motivate good behavior with carrots, they use the stick of getting run over by the proverbial bus.
But scare tactics rarely work when it comes to permanently changing people’s behavior. People may hold off on doing the bad behavior for a little while, but if they see others doing it and nothing happens, they think, “Well, that was over-exaggerated” and start doing it. Did the “This is your brain on drugs” actually work to significantly prevent drug use? Over the long term, scare tactics in certain areas can actually dis-incentivize good behavior because the problem appears to be so big that people feel overwhelmed. That’s why they will never work to solve climate change – people get so beat over the head with terrifying images that they feel that nothing they can do will make a difference. Even when it seems like fear works, as with Mothers Against Drunk Driving ads, it’s usually because societal norms have changed and most people consider the behavior no longer acceptable.
Using this tactic in pedestrian and bicycle safety campaigns specifically introduces another layer of Total Fail. Rather than encouraging safe behavior, the advertisements discourage engaging in the behavior at all. If you keep seeing photos of people getting hit by cars, it seems like no matter what you do, you’re going to get hit. Considering that, why would you ever choose to bike? They just reinforce the narrative that biking and walking are inherently unsafe ways to get places.
Unfortunately, the previous Street Smart safety campaign took exactly this tactic. It featured giant pictures of terrified looking pedestrians rolling over the front hood of cars after they got hit. And it’s not like it’s a new tactic – this “Official Bicycle Safety Manual” from the 1940s has gruesome photos of kids with captions about death. Considering that kids – and adults – still engage in dodgy riding behavior, you’d think we would have learned by now that these fear-based campaigns don’t work.
Instead, we just moved into even weirder, more blame the victim territory than ever with the recent Street Smart campaign. Under the tagline “A Huge Bicyclist/Pedestrian Problem,” the campaign bafflingly portrays pedestrians and bicyclists as giant Godzilla-like creatures that are destroying all cars in their paths.
Even if it doesn’t mean this message, the picture clearly communicates to the viewer that when someone gets hit by a car, it is clearly always their fault, never the drivers’ fault. In fact, it suggests that the bicyclist and pedestrians are threatening drivers! The sub-line “watch for pedestrians” ironically comes across as “Watch out, because they’re coming to kill yooooou” like some goofy zombie movie.
By using this outright aggressive imagery, they aren’t encouraging anyone to be safe. They’re straight-up telling everyone that bicyclists and pedestrians are a menace to society. By reinforcing the image of cyclists as reckless, they actually encourage drivers to disrespect cyclists. This type of attitude is why some drivers think it’s funny to “bump” cyclists, otherwise known as vehicular assault.
The first time I saw these ads, I gaped at them for a few seconds, wondering why the hell anyone would ever choose this imagery. As I thought about it, I realized that all of these images come about because of one reason – lazy communicators. The advertising design team created these images to attract the eye and get people’s attention without ever thinking about the secondary message they were communicating. They think that if only they stick some explanatory language on there, people will get the message regardless of what the picture communicates. But it’s been shown over and over again that people’s first impression – especially visual impression – sticks with them and colors everything else they read or see.
I call for better, less-fear-based, less insulting, bicycle and pedestrian safety campaigns. We need campaigns that demonstrate how to engage in good, safe behavior and empower people to feel safe while bicycling and walking places. We all – bicyclists, pedestrians, drivers – deserve better.