Eyes on the Street: Truth in Car Advertising

Truth in advertising
"The most advanced safety feature this car has is the driver standing next to it."

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 decidetodrive.org.”

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.

  • CL

    I don’t think “DRIVE SAFE!!” campaigns make a difference, because all drivers -believe that they are safe drivers. Even the ones who are really reckless think of themselves as good drivers. People actually claim that they know how to drive drunk, or that they know how to text and drive, or that they know how to drive in horrible conditions — the problem is all the bad drivers who don’t know how. This is one of those subjects where people are extremely deluded about their own behavior and about the risks. I feel like campaigns about texting and driving need to be detailed and specific to get through to people — telling stories, using statistics, something to make people think they might be wrong about their ability to text and drive safely. Simply encouraging people to be safe isn’t going to change behavior, because everyone already thinks they drive safely.

  • Apologies if this has already been covered, but I am terrified of the prospect of cars doing the driving while the drivers are doing something else. I have heard a few news stories about these cars will be safer, but not once have I heard the words walking, biking, pedestrian or cyclist.

    The last news bit I heard reported that you will be able to text, use your tablet, etc. I shudder at the thought of a two ton machine lumbering around our streets with no human eyes or brain engaged. I used to think this was a far-off reality, but it sounds like automakers are in a race to get to market.

    Perhaps I am a paranoid luddite.

  • Tom Vanderbilt, the author of Traffic, wrote about robotic cars (not “robot cars“) for Wired. It’s the best read so far that’s not a news story about Google’s latest development. Google has been driving them around California and other southwest states for a while now. They even lobbied the Nevada state legislature to legalize it (it wasn’t exactly illegal, I don’t think).

  • BlueFairlane

    I share your concern. I keep imagining the day the computer crashes … followed immediately by everything else.

  • clare

    Glad to see a post on that ad. Simply from a design perspective, it is a failure. I’ve passed by that ad dozens of times before I actually stopped to read the fine print; always just assumed it was an ad for a car or beauty product. On the other end of the spectrum is the message that flashes over the expressways reading something like, “XX have died this year from distracted driving.” Everyone talks about that ad, nobody misses it.

  • anon

    http://focusdriven.org/ has done a great job of this. It’s devoted to the stories of the victims and their loved ones.

  • Will Bill

    I appreciate the astute observations of “modal bias.” As a biker this is something I have figured out on my own – how come there’s a disproportionate number of assholes driving down the road driving like they want to kill me – honking, reckless, etc; – and one minute later in the grocery store everybody’s normal again? Where did all those monsters go to? I came to the conclusion that they must feel more powerful because they are in a big car, and that perception also extended to me as being a weak puny biker. Which is when I started becoming an asshole myself and purposely getting in fights with people in cars just to try to correct there level of perception. But then I felt like a big asshole walking around the grocery store so I stopped. Sometimes life is better just taking the bus.

  • CL

    I think weird psychological things happen when people drive (and bike). It’s an extremely frustrating experience — so many people in your way, being jerks, driving slower or faster than your ideal speed. And it’s all anonymous. I think some people are assholes on a power trip, but I think a lot of other people are just stressed out and frustrated. And they end up taking out their life stress on the road, in addition to their driving / biking stress.

  • bill william

    I agree. I feel bad for anyone who has to drive (and sit in traffic). Driving starts out fun and exciting when you first get your license, and then it’s downhill from there. At that point people somehow come to believe it is the only possible way, as well as internalizing a sense of physical incapacity. This is reflected in the incredulous response – “you rode your bike here?!” (Me: “yea, a mile is only 8 blocks and 7 minutes”) (and furthermore isn’t an environmentally destructive habit)

  • Ditto, Gin. I keep hearing about how much safer the self-driving cars are because the multiple sensors are so good at avoiding collisions and reacting and — unlike humans — never taking their “eyes” off the road, but even so, my reptile brain can’t embrace the idea. I saw a demo video made by Mercedes during the consumer electronics show in which a German guy was “driving” up the Las Vegas strip in a semi-automatic car. The crazy thing was that the car is designed so that when traffic is light, the human fully controls it, but when traffic gets to be heavy and thus more complicated, the robot kicks in and takes over. For someone like me, who is reluctant to use the cruise control function of a car even on a wide-open highway, this is so counter-intuitive.

  • Ryan Wallace

    I can’t remember which one, but a comedian does a bit that wonders what the grocery store would be like if we acted the same way while in line as we do I while in a car in traffic. Can you imagine someone simply cutting everyone in the line, the just flipping them off???

  • Vanderbilt addresses that perception in the book (I think in the same chapter): that every driver believes they are safe.

    Page 60:

    “In study after study, from the United States to France to New Zealand, when groups of drivers were asked to compare themselves to the ‘average driver’, a majority inevitably respond that they were ‘better’. This is, of course, statistically quite improbably and seems like a sketch from Monty Python: ‘We Are All Above Average!’ Psychologists have called this phenomenon ‘optimistic bias’ (or the ‘above-average effect’), and it is still something of a mystery why we do it.

    “The above-average effect helps explain resitsance (in the early stages, at least) to new traffic safety measures, from seat belts to cell phone restrictions. Polls have shown, for example, that most drivers would like to see text messaging while driving banned; those same polls also show that most people have done it. We overestimate the risks to society and underestimate our own risk. It is the other person’s behavior that needs to be controlled, not mine… We think stricter laws are a good idea for the people who need them.”

    It goes on…

    I could not recommend this book more. Buy it on Amazon.

  • Streetsblog book club? :)

  • I have an out-of-state friend who illustrates this problem very well. She tries to pack more into her already crammed schedule by spending as much time as possible talking on the phone while she drives. I only visit occasionally, but she always manages to give me at least a few serious scares with very close misses in traffic. Even worse, she drives a giant SUV.

    I’ve had conversations with her where I ask her about this and why she thinks this is a good idea, whether she’s driving alone or with kids. She tries to rationalize it but doesn’t succeed. She also comments that she frequently gets into fights with her husband about the subject. My response: “Your husband makes a very point about this. You’re NOT driving safely. Please listen to him.” She’s resistant to change but respects my opinion enough that she doesn’t fight back. I notice small changes on subsequent visits. Also, to avoid contributing to the problem, I only call her on the land line and not on the cell. Even though I’d like to see her more often, I’m grateful that I’m not trying to survive sharing the road with her.

    I’m guessing that each of us probably has at least a few friends and relatives like her. A few of my neighbors are similar drivers. Seeing them on the road does NOT make me happy.

  • It’s an excellent book. I highly recommend it.

  • On the rare occasions when I drive, I try to be conscious of this modal bias and check myself if I slip into obnoxious driver behavior. When drivers around us are behaving badly, it’s an easy trap to fall into.

    I yield to peds at uncontrolled intersections, unless it’s a situation where I feel there’s a serious risk of being rear ended, and I make a conscious effort to watch for bikes. Without a conscious effort, it’s too easy to fall into the trap of letting that steel cage isolate us from the needs and rights of other road users.

  • Anonymous

    What would Veronica Moss say about modal bias? Find out.


  • Anonymous

    Also, Bill, cyclists can be victims of mode bias, too. I hike a lot, including in Chicago area forest preserves. The paved trails in the Forest Preserves are intended to accommodate pedestrians and cyclists. I can’t count the times where I’ve almost been run over, berated, and even threatened for being on an asphalt trail – including with young kids.

    A yellow stripe down the middle does not transform a trail to a high-speed bike raceway where cyclists have right-of-way over (literally on top of and over, as some would have it) pedestrians.

    I should say that I’m a huge cycling proponent – just highlighting it isn’t simply an auto-bias, of course.

  • Anonymous

    I’m a safe driver. :)

  • BlueFairlane

    I see people affected by that all the time. Fortunately, it hasn’t struck me. I guess I’m just too good a driver.