Friday, May 11, 2012

Letter to TAC (2)

Tonight I received a reply from TAC to the emails I sent them.  I will not reproduce it as it is marked confidential, however I believe it to be a form letter given that I am pretty sure I have read all the material included already from the Spokes website.

Suffice to say that the TAC conducted focus groups who confirmed that the message of the ad was clear, that the TAC is tackling other aspects of motorcycle safety such as ABS info on the Spokes site, etc.

I replied as follows:

Dear TAC representative,

thank you for replying to my emails, I appreciate the time you have taken to contact me.

In my initial email to TAC from last week, I asked that the ad be watched with the viewer substituting the scenario into a 70 zone.  Have you been able to find a moment to do this?

Can you please tell me in what way the content and message of this ad would help in that scenario?

The reason I ask you to do this is because if you do, you will realise that the messages in this ad have become confused.

On the one hand, there is the appeal to physics: if you approach at speed X, visibility is impacted by vehicle Y and so driver Z pulls out at this point, the consequences are as follows.  If we adjust the approach speed to be Q instead of X, the outcome is different.  All good and well.

However, the ad then goes on to say that speed X is above the speed limit, and speed Q is at the speed limit; therefore travelling at the speed limit will prevent this outcome.  But as the exercise of setting the scene in a 70 zone demonstrates, the causal factors of this crash are independent of the speed zone that the road is set in.  The physics demands that given the same inputs - bike speed, visibility, driver action and bike reaction - the outcome is the same.  The fact that 68 was speeding and 60 was not are immaterial to the physics; tying the cause of the accident back to the speed limit of the road is arbitrary and I believe unhelpful and disingenuous.

This is I believe the crux of my concern about the approach the TAC is taking, and why I firmly believe that the TAC is failing motorcyclists with this campaign and this approach to rider safety.  The goal of this ad is clearly to discourage the practice or riding in excess of the speed limit.  This is, I believe, the wrong goal.

The more appropriate and necessary goal should be to encourage and educate riders to ride at a safe speed.  Hence my appeal to set the ad in a 70 zone - at which point the rider's speed becomes legal, but is still not safe, and the rider still dies.  Therefore since I believe that the TAC really ought to be focusing on improving rider safety, I consider this ad to be a failure, since it only educates riders to judge what is a safe speed with reference to the speed limit, rather than educating riders how to judge a safe speed from the conditions.

Of course if riders were judging their speed from the conditions, I believe that would also achieve the goals of reducing speeding, since there is usually some correlation between the limit on a road and the speed at which one can safely travel upon it, for various reasons.  But on principle, I believe that you achieve better outcomes when you educate people how to decide, rather than telling them what to decide.

A brief examination of the crash statistics for 2011 informs us that nearly 40% of crashes happened on 100km/h or faster roads and (from memory) around that same percentage were identified as single vehicle accidents either running off the road on a straight, or failing to negotiate a bend.  An ad targeted at educating riders how to judge a safe speed for the conditions may well help prevent accidents in those categories as well.  The current ad singularly fails to address this issue other than to say "don't go over 100 in a 100 zone"; which is not *bad* advice per se, but it's desperately limited in that it doesn't assist a rider to judge a safe and legal speed.

In short, I consider this ad to be a lamentable failure.  It had the potential to be an excellent communication aid to educate riders, but was co-opted by TACs infatuation with slogans, sound bites, and speed limits.

I'm also quite concerned about the process by which feedback is gathered from your focus groups.  Based on what you've written below, I would speculate that participants were asked questions like "is the message clear?", "would the ad make you think about the speed you travel at?" and participants rated each question upon a scale.  This is useful insofar as it provides answers to the questions you are asking your participants.

This is not the same thing as feedback, and it is definitely not the same thing as consultation.  Feedback constitutes a participant informing you of their view, such as:
  • The message is wrong; you should focus on a safe and legal speed, not on exceeding the limit
  • showing a rider who is wearing all the protective gear being killed in a 30km/h collision undermines the efforts of both the TAC and the riding community to encourage riders to wear all the gear all the time
  • motorcyclists will react badly to an ad that depicts a driver failing to see a rider, and then failing to enter an intersection safely, only to then have the blame for the accident placed upon the rider.  They will react even worse if the further information about the ad on Spokes goes on to exonerate the driver on the basis of case law, particularly when that case law was recently used to acquit an off duty police officer who performed a u-turn across double lines in thick fog resulting in the death of a motorcyclist.
So if you had engaged me in one of these focus groups, and if the questions were asked as I speculated, I have no doubt that I would have told you yes, the message "don't speed" is clear, and yes I think that it will provoke riders to think and talk about the issue.

But if you had asked me for my feedback, or if you had consulted with me beforehand, I would have told you the following:

This ad comes across as a condescending over-simplification that ignores the real causal issues of motorcycle accidents.  It is a mistake insofar as it will inflame and enrage the motorcycle community, undermining their trust in the TAC and reinforcing their belief that the TAC is anti-riding.  Given the technical flaws in the ad, many riders will probably conclude that the ad isn't actually aimed at riders at all, but rather at the spouses and families of riders, in the hope that they will be so emotionally terrorised by the ad that they will manipulate the rider into quitting riding.  Furthermore this ad is a wasted opportunity; given the cost of producing an ad, there are so many very real safety issues that could have been addressed that have almost universal applicability across the motorcycling community, such as: this is where he stops without ABS, this is where he stops with ABS; 60 is a limit, not a target - sometimes the limit is too fast for the conditions; when did you last practice your emergency braking?; and so on.

Finally, forgive me for being blunt, but your response to my two emails reads very much like a form letter.  It has not engaged with the specific questions that I raised - namely the ads inability to address real safety issues - and while I appreciate that you are very busy, there are over 780 names on my petition calling on the TAC to take motorcycling safety more seriously and to engage with us more openly.

I am not asking you copy and paste paragraphs justifying what has already been done.  I am trying to tell you that the approach the TAC is taking is wrong, that you are making mistakes, alienating riders and aggravating us.  I am trying to tell you that you are wasting money and opportunities by failing to understand and address the complexities of motorcycle safety.  I am trying to open your eyes to the fact that the "reduce the risks" shock campaign did not have any impact on lowering the motorcycle toll, and that whoever decided to go with another "emotive ad" has seriously miscalculated and should probably brush up their resume.  And most of all I am trying to show you that this ad, like the reduce the risks campaign before it, has eroded the motorcycling community's trust in the TAC.  The TAC is not seen as being "on the side of riders" or of being sincere in working towards safer motorcycling, but rather the TAC is seen as trying to discourage riding and vilify riders.  And in case you haven't worked it out, let me spell it out to you:

You are not going to be successful in educating riders or changing rider behaviour if they don't trust you.  And we don't.

Now the TAC can continue to operate as it has been, using its same old approach to working with its same old focus groups, and trying to beat hollywood for graphic depictions of deaths and injuries.  And you will continue to wring your hands in frustration, wondering why these bloody bikers don't listen, and when will they learn.  Or you can try something different.  You can actually listen to us.  Not ring up the Motorcycle Advisory Council and say "we're working on something new" so that you can then tell AMCN magazine that you've "consulted" with them.  Actually stop and listen to us.

The fatality toll for 2010 and 2011 was terrible.  2012 isn't looking any better so far.  Isn't it about time to recognise what the evidence is telling you - that your current approach isn't working?  That if you want to drive down the number of motorcycle deaths, you are going to have to try something new?


Ross Daws


  1. I'm sorry to say that this matches my attempts to correspond with the TAC as well. I've had form letters that simply restate the website content (sometimes word for word) rather than any attempt to actually answer my questions. In the case of the faulty statistics used to generate the '38 times more likely' slogan, I pointed out to the caveats in the original study at Flinders University that stated the figures were not reliable and should be used with caution. In reply I was told that the ad was based on a world class study from Flinders University. Clearly they had not even read my letter. Very disappointing.

  2. I've just had a read over the presentation that the MRAV made to TAC after the last ad campaign, and the minutes of that meeting. I confess I was unsurprised when I was told that the MRA had tried to engage with TAC before and that they simply weren't listened to - after all, I've seen some of those MRA boys make a right hash of things in the past.

    But the document they prepared was actually very good. It brought out one theme very strongly - that riders are more likely to listen when the person talking to them is a fellow rider. They made several suggestions and offers of assistance on this front. All of which has been duly ignored in this latest campaign.

    It is hard not to draw conclusions of disingenuous behaviour at this point. A facade of communication, a charade of collaboration and welcoming feedback. It's all very disappointing indeed.

  3. It is actually pretty prevalent behaviour within a beauracracy, and while certainly disappointing, is not actually that surprising. It isn't surprising that pollies and govt agencies only really start to even notice what one is saying if it is an issue which is generating a great deal of media heat, especially close to election times...

    These people paid good money to consultants, so why would they need to listen to the uninformed public after all, what would they know?

    The problem we have here is manifold. Riders are a minority, and a pesky one at that as far as TAC is concerned because we cost more than other motorists - the fact that this is because we are more vulnerable is easy to overlook, and stereotypes of irresponsible riding behaviour certainly don't help any either.

    Minorities are almost never catered to well by govt and beauracracies, unless they are very well resourced, politically active, and seen as a threat in terms of influence in election times.

    Add to that the fact that a simplistic 'slow down, don't speed' message is much cheaper to manage than engaging in a more meaningful way, or acknowledging that this is a complex issue that may require a serious look at policy as well as education, licensing and training methods etc. and it quickly becomes too hard. 'Don't speed' is good for these guys - easy to promote, in line with what they say to cars, and if you don't pay attention to that message there is a nice little earner to govt revenue as well...

    I'm not confident that even a royal commision like inquiry into motorcycle safety would actually bring about meaningful change, but I'm fairly certain that anything less won't. :|

    Doesn't mean it isn't worth trying - just means it is likely to be a long hard road, with some tragic cases of 'We told you so' and 'If only you had listened sooner' underlined in the lives, pain and suffering of fellow riders before that change eventuates...

    Of course, I'm desparately hoping they prove me wrong... but I'm not holding my breath.

  4. Thanks Ross, you clearly have a way with words. Your letter was very well written. It was clear and to the point. Riders are fortunate to have someone like you on their side.

    Keep up the good work.