Chicago Auto Show producers sponsor contest that produces awful victim-blaming PSAs

"Little girl, you should wear reflective safety gear so that grownups in cars won't kill you when you walk in the street at night because there are no sidewalks." Image: National Road Safety Foundation, Chicago Auto Show
"Little girl, you should wear reflective safety gear so that grownups in cars won't kill you when you walk in the street at night because there are no sidewalks." Image: National Road Safety Foundation, Chicago Auto Show

Recently Streetsblog contributor A.J. LaTrace discussed the absurdly large SUVs and pickup trucks on display at the Chicago Auto Show. These machines have massive blind spots that make it difficult to detect a child in front of the vehicle, and their absurdly high front ends basically ensure that a struck pedestrian or bike rider will go under the wheels, rather than over the hood, reducing the chance of survival. Studies show the popularity of these monster vehicles is fueling the current surge in pedestrian deaths.

The new Chevrolet Silverado at the Chicago Auto Show. The front end is nearly as tall as A.J. LaTrace, who's 6'1". Photo: Al Di Zenzo
The new Chevrolet Silverado at the Chicago Auto Show. The front end is nearly as tall as A.J. LaTrace, who’s 6’1″. Photo: Al Di Zenzo

The Chicago Automobile Trade Association, the new-car dealer association for Chicagoland area and producers of the auto show, recently partnered with the National Road Safety Foundation on the Drive Safe Chicago PSA contest to produce traffic safety videos.

In a press release announcing the three contest finalists this week, the contest organizers acknowledge that there were “more than 7,500 pedestrian and bicyclist deaths nationwide in 2020, an increase of nearly 5 percent” over 2019. But they promote the driver-pandering myth that all road users are equally to blame for the carnage, citing the need to “educate drivers, pedestrians and bicyclists about risks on the road.”

Logo for the Drive Safe Chicago PSA contest
Logo for the Drive Safe Chicago PSA contest

Unsurprisingly, the three finalist videos advance the notion that fatal crashes are often the fault of people on foot and bikes acting irresponsibly, rather than unsafe street design and reckless behavior by folks piloting high-speed multi-ton vehicles. The contest was geared towards local teenagers, who proposed ideas for the 30-second spots. But let’s not fault these well-meaning young people for the terrible results – we shouldn’t expect teens to be experts on the nuances of effective traffic safety messaging. More likely the contest sponsors and the “Emmy-winning producer” the youth worked with are to blame.

In the first clip, “Whose Road Is It?” a bike rider and a young child walking in a street – because there are no sidewalks – haughtily declare, “It’s my road.” A crossing guard scolds them, “This isn’t your road, this is our road, and we need to share it.” When will these vulnerable road users stop being so selfish about hogging the street?

The next spot “Superhero” starts promisingly enough by urging motorists to give people on bikes plenty of clearance. “Uh oh, that [driver’s] getting too close to the cyclist,” says the Wonder Woman-like protagonist with “NRSF” emblazoned on her shirt. “A puff of super-breath will move the car over. Drivers, remember bikes and scooters have the right to be on the road.”

But the clip goes downhill from there. “Hmm, no sidewalks here,” the title character says as she spies another young kid walking in a pedestrian-hostile street, at risk of being struck by drivers. So does the superhero fly off to City Hall to urge the transportation department to install sidewalks?

Nope, she instead admonishes the kid for being foolish by not wearing special safety gear. “Without super-eyesight, others may not see [you.] You should wear bright colors and reflective material.” She zaps the child with a magic ray that turns her black jacket pink and adds dorky Day-Glo yellow reflective straps. That’ll teach youngsters not to leave the house on foot at night wearing normal street clothes!

The third video “Share the Music” is so bad it achieves a certain grandeur. A person driving, a person walking, and a person biking are all rocking out to the same goofy Strokes-inspired pop tune. (Granted, the song is a banger.) “Hey watch it!” yells the pedestrian, walking on yet another street without sidewalks, as the cyclist nearly strikes her. “Hey watch it!” hollers the bike rider as the driver runs her off the road. The clip reenforces the ridiculous myth that people acting negligent on 40-pound bikes are just as much of a threat to public safety as their counterparts in 4,000-pound cars. The spot ends with the slogan “Share the music. Share the road.”

Even if these videos weren’t so absurd and victim-blaming, the innocuous “share the road” mantra throughout these clips, which asks little from drivers in terms of changing their habits, is pointless. If we’re serious about addressing the pedestrian and cyclist death epidemic, we need safer street designs; better pedestrian, bike, and transit facilities; less driving; and a federal ban on deadly vehicle designs like the ones that were glorified at the Chicago Auto Show.

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