Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Safe driving: April is National Distracted Driving Awareness Month

Great sign!
Flickr photo by Freddy.

The National Highway Safety Traffic Administration is part of the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and there are safety programs at the state level in each state, which receive funding from NHSTA to carry out safety programs.

While this article, "Crash analytics: how data can eliminate highway deaths," from Government Computer News doesn't say much, it outlines overall thinking about traffic safety.  The "Towards Zero Deaths" initiative in Minnesota is another approach.

I was originally motivated to write about this topic for two reasons.  First, because of how a contingent of conservative local elected officials in Pennsylvania rejected the use of these national monies to make a statement.  See "Lehigh County Commissioners reject grant to start regional highway safety program" from the Easton (PA) Express-Times.  Of course, people in that county will still die in traffic accidents.

Second, because I think that the DC-Baltimore "StreetSmart" marketing program that delivers traffic safety messages isn't very good.  Ben Ross made a similar point in this GGW entry, "Pedestrian safety message exhorts but does not educate."  The  program was developed by the Transportation Planning Board of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments but is also used in the Baltimore region of Maryland, since the State of Maryland Highway Safety program is one of the funders.

I commonly have complaints about inadequate marketing on the part of government agencies, and I feel that the StreetSmart program, no matter how well intended, illustrates the points that I make, that the messages tend to be muddled, unclear/diffuse, and indirect.

2011 campaign ad:  is supposed to be directed to pedestrians, telling them to wait for walk signals.
StreetSmart traffic safety campaign, 2011

2012 campaign ad: is what moral development theorist Lawrence Kohlberg would have said is focused on stage four ethical reasoning, about "following the law" at the threat of being punished.
StreetSmart traffic safety campaign, 2012

Because I was working on a bid for a project in Southern California, I had a chance to review some of the marketing efforts of the Metrolink commuter railroad system and I was struck by the high quality of their various efforts, including the bicycle train car, which features an arresting wrap of an entire car.  I found out that the designer of the train car wrap is an advertising firm in New Mexico, VWK, and that VWK does other transportation related marketing, specifically concerning traffic safety initiatives in New Mexico, including drunk driving.

Now I like vehicle wraps, which is maybe why I like VWK's bus wraps in Albuquerque.  One side of the bus features a message focused on pedestrians.  The message on the other side focuses on motor vehicle drivers.
bus wrap, Pedestrian safety campaign, New Mexico, VWK

One of the problems in the DC region with government-initiated marketing is that it generally isn't very good.  I am not sure if it's because people aren't innovative, lack marketing-advertising backgrounds, or are extremely wary of stepping outside of their comfort zone because doing things "too crazy" doesn't get you plaudits, but criticism.  But it wastes money.  A lot of it.

(Although the DC region is one of the centers of "social marketing," or marketing created to change people's behavior, not sell them things, as units of the National Institutes of Health are big practitioners.  Although originally focused on changing people's health behaviors, social marketing has significantly expanded beyond its original focus.)

It turns out that  VWK is doing a lot of work for the New Mexico Department of Transportation concerning drunk driving deaths.  (Interesting, given the recent article in the Post about a family who successfully lobbied to reduce the 20 year jail term given to their son for causing three deaths. See "Judges cut Kevin Coffay’s sentence in Md. drunk-driving case to 8 years." Good thing he wasn't an illegal immigrant. See "Illegal immigrant sentenced to 20 years drunk-driving case.")

Over the time of the campaign, which involves many other actors (including enforcement efforts) but also targeted campaigns to Native American and Latino audiences, drunk driving-related deaths have dropped by 35% in the state.  See the VWK case study on the campaign and this tv ad.

And this VWK ad on distracted driving.

Very strong work.

I spoke with Richard Kuhn of VWK and with regard to the anti-drunk driving campaign, he made the point that the campaign has to compete with and meet the messaging quality of the advertising done by the producers and sellers of alcoholic beverages.  So they study that advertising, its messaging, and media channels, and respond accordingly.  And they focus on getting the message across through branding and complete campaigns using the best techniques and practices, not necessarily limiting themselves to the "social marketing" concept.

He said that they have been fortunate that both Metrolink and the New Mexico Department of Transportation have innovative department leaders who understand that their message has to be contemporary both to reach their targeted (and younger) demographics and to cut through the clutter of all the media that people receive, consume, or generate, especially social media.

Now I think the way it works with NHTSA is that participants in the program can use materials produced by other states.  The DC-MD region would do better to use higher quality campaigns produced by others rather than to continue with the muddled program they are doing now.  See "New Mexico DOT launches ‘Look For Me’ pedestrian safety campaign" from Better Roads magazine.

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