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Eyes on the Street: Truth in Car Advertising

11:57 AM CST on February 14, 2013

Truth in advertising

This advertisement for safe driving has been posted for a couple of months on a bus stop shelter for the 56-Milwaukee at California Avenue. It's sponsored by the Auto Alliance and the American Association of Orthopaedic Surgeons (the kind who will fix your broken bones after a car crash).

A woman dressed in a gown fit for a ball is pulling the wrap off what looks like the latest model car at an auto show, with topline text about safety features – at first glance it looks like the typical car ad with a safety angle. But this one's different: The title says, "The most advanced safety feature this car has is the driver standing next to it."

In smaller text, it reads, "America's orthopaedic surgeons, in partnership with automakers, urge all drivers to keep their most sophisticated safety features engaged at all times: eyes on the road and hands on the wheel. Join the effort to stop distracted driving at"

I couldn't agree more with the billboard's message, but I'd like to see this message reach people when they're driving -- maybe with a radio spot.

The first chapter of Tom Vanderbilt's Traffic is filled with examples of how much human behaviors and reactions change when we're behind the wheel of a car versus when we're walking across the street, or biking to the store.

Vanderbilt's first example is a plot summary for Disney Studio's 1950 "Motor Mania" cartoon, featuring Goofy as a Jekyll and Hyde character. When Goofy is walking, he's "courteous and honest, the sort who whistles back at birds and wouldn't stop on an ant." When driving, though, he becomes "a power-obsessed uncontrollable monster who races other cars at stop lights and views the road as his own personal property."

Vanderbilt calls this change in behavior "modal bias," which occurs because of skewed perceptual senses (you can see but you can't be heard), territoriality, and the loss of identity inside a car.

So someone should put a version of this ad on drive-time radio. In the meantime, the billboard should also be facing the other way, so drivers waiting for the light to change can have some time to read it.

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