Impact of road safety advertising on driver behaviour

This paper will firstly focus on a general overview of road safety advertising campaigns and fear appeals, followed by an examination of a study conducted on the effects of fear arousal and perceived efficacy on the acceptance and rejection of road safety advertising messages. Secondly, this essay will investigate a study conducted on the effectiveness of physical and social fear appeals in influencing the intentions of University students to drive safely. Thirdly, the author will examine a study conducted on the fear pattern of road safety authority advertisement’s and the potential impact on the viewer. Fourthly, this paper will investigate a study examining the impact of different styles of traffic safety advertisement on young drivers explicit and implicit self-enhancement biases. Fifthly, the author will address a study conducted which examined drivers biased perceptions of speed and safety campaign messages. Finally, this paper will conclude with a discussion on the ecological validity of the studies examined within this paper and a general overview of road safety advertising campaigns. Throughout this essay the author will draw upon further research to support the discussion.

Road safety advertising campaigns are difficult to define as generally campaigns can consist of a vast range of activities. However one such definition, brought about by comprehensively searching through the relevant literature was devised by de Dobbeleer (2009). This definition is the most comprehensive definition to date and was stated as follows:

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“Purposive attempts to inform, persuade, and motivate a population (or sub-group of a population) to change its attitude and/or behaviour to improve road safety, using organized communication activities involving specific media channels within a given time period, often complemented by other supportive activities (enforcement, education, legislation, commitment, rewards, etc.).”(de Dobbelleer, 2009).

For the purpose of this paper the author will address one particular form of road safety campaign, namely fear appeals. A fear appeal can be described as a message designed to elicit fear in a form of attempt to persuade the relevant individual to pursue a recommended course of action (Walton, 1996). In recent years, numerous agencies have employed these scare tactics by showing various shocking scenarios such as a graphic depiction of a tragic car accident, or a member of the An Garda Siochana arriving at the family home to deliver the devastating news. These tactics are thought to illustrate the negative consequences of risky driving behaviour and subsequently cause the viewer/listener to alter their behaviour. Furthermore this paper will frequently discuss fear relief advertisements. Fear relief advertisements can be described as during the middle to late stage of the advertisement, fear would have reached its peak and then is reduced when the relief or safe driving recommendation is made (Algie & Rossiter, 2010).

One study was conducted to investigate the effects of fear arousal and perceived efficacy on the acceptance and rejection of road safety advertising messages that were typical of those broadcasted in Australia and New Zealand (Tay, Watson, Radbourne, & De Young, 2001). The study consisted of predominantly University students with some work colleagues of the project team. The study sample comprised of 165 participants for the initial questionnaire sample followed by 134 participants for the follow up questionnaire. Results from the study suggest that the level of fear arousal could be lowered without having a significant effect on the acceptance rates of the message but subsequently result in a much lower rate of message rejection (Tay et al., 2001). Furthermore the study found that with the inclusion of various coping strategies within the road safety messages that there is a significant positive effect on the acceptance of the initial message (Tay et al., 2001). The study outlined that numerous road safety advertisements in Australia and New Zealand do not always include recommendations for a relevant coping strategy to the initial fear appeal (Tay et al., 2001). Furthermore 52.7% of the participants in the study were presented with a fear appeal message while the remaining sample were shown the same fear appeal plus a recommended strategy to cope with the fear appeal (Tay et al., 2001). Interestingly, the data found evidence to suggest that the participants who were presented with the coping recommendation included (M=5.95, SD=.84), reported stronger intentions to take positive actions over those who were presented with without the coping strategy (M=5.27, SD= 1.07). Furthermore there was a significant difference in relation to intentions to take positive actions over time with the group who had the coping strategy included resulting in a significantly longer recall over time (Tay et al., 2001).

A further study conducted by Wiley, Krisjanous and Hutchings (2002) set about to evaluate the effectiveness of physical and social fear appeals in influencing intention to drive safely with regard to youths in New Zealand. The research aims were to investigate if one type of appeal is more effective than the other in influencing intentions to drive responsibly and moreover, if the mechanisms by which the respective appeals influence driver responsibility to the same degree (Wiley et al., 2002). This study utilised a two group, between subjects design. Each group were exposed to either a Social appeal or physical appeal advertisement. Both advertisements were embedded within a TV program in an attempt to maximise external validity. The participants who took part in this study were University students from a second year marketing class. Twenty-nine participants were exposed to the physical fear appeal advertisement and 24 were exposed to the social fear appeal. The study also reported that 89% of the participants were between the ages of 18 and 23 years. The study found that with regard to driver responsibility, that the social appeals were systematically more favourable than with physical appeals (= 5.7, df= 1, p= .02). Furthermore the study found that there was a significant indirect effect of emotionality with regard to driver responsibility for the physical appeals (Wiley et al., 2002). For the social appeals, there was a significant relationship reported between driver responsibilities and relating to the advertisement (Wiley et al., 2002). The results in this study suggest that the mechanisms of how both social and physical fear appeal advertisements influence driver responsibility are the exact same. However, this study showed that social appeals would be more favourable with regard to levels of driver responsibility than in the case of physical appeals.

A study conducted by Rossiter and Thornton (2004), examined the fear pattern of the advertisement rather than the overall level of fear produced by the ad. The authors viewed the study of the overall level of fear produced by the ad as a substantial limitation; therefore this study was based on moment to moment ratings of fear to relief of the fear pattern of the advertisement. The authors performed two separate studies in the paper. The first study consisted of the use of seven anti speeding TV advertisements which were commonly used in various Australian states. The campaigns which were presented to the participants were advertisements from states outside their area of residence. The participants were shown seven advertisements, four of which were described as fear-relief advertisements with the remaining three described as rising fear advertisements. The first four advertisements showed the fear relief pattern while the remaining advertisements produced a rising fear pattern. The participants for this first study comprised of 210 undergraduate marketing students from a Australian University with an age range of 18-25 years. Results showed that fear patterns among the group were relatively consistent despite two outliers which were excluded from the study (Rossiter & Thornton, 2004). The second study was a laboratory based experiment using similarly to the previous study, anti speeding road-safety TV advertisements (Rossiter & Thornton, 2004). Two advertisements were selected from the previous study due to both of the advertisements most accurately represented a shock pattern and the other a fear-relief pattern. Similarly to the previous study the participants were recruited from first year University undergraduate marketing classes. Participants were randomly assigned to watch one of the two anti speeding advertisements weekly for a three week period. Each participant was required to complete a moment-to-moment rating for each of the advertisements. Following the final exposure to the advertisements each participant was required to take part in a VST simulated driving test. Results suggest that the generalizability of these findings should be construed with caution (Rossiter & Thornton, 2004). Furthermore the results also suggest that while most participants in the first study reported viewing all of the advertisements during the six viewings, the study also suggests that loss of attention may arise after more than eight viewings and may therefore lose their influence. The findings overall of both studies support that of the fear-drive model (Rossiter & Thornton, 2004). However, if the fear cannot be practically reduced, then fear-relief advertisements may consist of only the fear element (Rossiter & Thornton, 2004).

A further study conducted by Sibley and Harre (2009), conducted a study investigating the impact of different styles of traffic safety advertisement on young drivers explicit and implicit self-enhancement biases. The participants in the study were 150 undergraduate psychology students from the University of Auckland. The study found that positively framed driving advertisements were most effective at reducing self-enhancement biases in driving ability (Sibley & Harre, 2009). Furthermore the study found that exposure to driving advertisements either negatively or positively did not significantly alter implicit, automatic self-enhancement biases (Sibley & Harre, 2009). The findings in this study further illustrated the importance of positively framed messages as being superior to negatively framed advertisements in influencing the psychological processes, which underlie driving behaviour. The study also found that young adult drivers within this study showed strong implicit and explicit biases, in which they viewed themselves as safer drivers than their peers (Sibley & Harre, 2009). Psychological perceptions such as these may be of substantial importance in changing driving behaviour as self-enhancement biases have been suggested to encompass the ways in which individuals view road safety authority advertisements (Clark, Ward, & Truman, 2005).

A further study conducted by Walton and Mckeown (2001), investigated drivers biased perceptions of speed and safety campaign messages. One hundred and thirteen drivers were studied to investigate their perceptions of driving speed (Walton & McKeown, 2002). The study sample consisted of students from Lincoln University, New Zealand. The study compared actual speed, perceived speed and self-reported speed (Walton & McKeown, 2002). These varying variables were established to evaluate if road safety authority campaigns reach their target audience. Similar to previous studies, the authors used fear appeal advertisements within the design of the study. The findings of this current study suggest that fear appeal advertisements are subject to attitudinal biases, in that some participants viewed the message of safety as belonging to others rather than themselves (Walton & McKeown, 2002). The participants within this study who believed that they on average drive faster than the average, accepted the advertisement as aimed at themselves, while those who viewed themselves as slower than the average rejected the advertisement as being aimed towards others (Walton & McKeown, 2002).

Ecological validity can be described as the degree to which behaviours observed and recorded in a study reflect the behaviours that actually occur in natural settings (Ladouceur, Gaboury, Bujold, Lachance & Tremblay, 1991). As illustrated with the topic of this paper, the importance of a reliable level of ecological validity is unquestionable. The difficulty with studying human behaviour is that to a degree if the testing occurs within a testing laboratory (i.e. participants being tested in a controlled environment); ecological validity is hampered to an extent. Furthermore, the sample which were recruited within the studies examined in this paper, were mainly University students. While this may considerably influence the construct validity of the studies, this also may pose as a threat to ecological validity as the data collected considerably hampers the generalizability of the data to the wider population as driving behaviour may differ considerably. As illustrated with all the studies examined in this paper, all participants to some extent were required to provide responses in relation to their current and future intended driving behaviour. The participants may have altered their responses to conform to more socially acceptable ones. Furthermore, as different driving behaviours are viewed with various levels of social acceptance, the responses may indeed vary depending on the specific behaviour in question. Similarly the Hawthorne effect and Rosenthal effect may also play a role in that participants may have improved or modified an aspect of their intended behaviour not in response to the experimental manipulation. A further difficulty with regard to ecological validity within the studies investigated in this paper is in relation to the testing of effects post exposure, and lack thereof longitudinally. Throughout the studies examined within this paper, despite the various limitations as outlined above with regard to ecological validity, all of the studies have clearly outlined not only the dependent and independent variables studied but they have also utilised appropriate statistical procedures despite rather limited sample sizes. However as illustrated with the studies examined within this paper, the role of various fear appeals in road safety campaigns have shown to be controversial, especially considering the levels of funding that are frequently allocated to the implementation of these campaigns. Many studies not excluding those examined within this paper have shown mixed evidence with regard to their effectiveness (Wheatley & Oshikawa, 1970; Rotfield, 1988; Latour & Rotfeld, 1997). Furthermore various other studies have shown that contrary to popular belief, that these campaigns may in fact be increasing the behaviour they are attempting to prevent (Jessop & Wade, 2008). What is evident is that future research is required to be carried out to limit the extent of possible extraneous variables and to increase the level of ecological validity through the investigation of various other independent variables.

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