Saturday, May 12, 2012

Motorcycle Safety Messages (part 1)

John Thompson from the TAC has invited me to make any suggestions I have on how the TAC can get riders to a) stop speeding and b) wear protective gear.  I'm not sure he's going to like what I have to say, and I'm less sure he'll listen, but here is my thinking on the subject thus far.

1.  The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Safety Messages

In his book 'The 7 habits of Highly Effective People', author Steven Covey introduces the concept of a trust bank.  This trust bank or emotional bank holds the balance of trust that an individual holds towards you.  Each time you do something that earns trust, that balance goes up.  Each time you do something that breaks trust, the balance goes down.  In essence he states that it is possible to break trust with people and still maintain a healthy relationship with them providing you have previously established a positive trust balance with them.  In other words, I can break a promise to my daughters (Sorry love, I won't be home in time to read you a bedtime story) and not damage the relationship providing I have proven myself trustworthy in the past and I haven't exhausted that balance of trust.  However if I promise to be home in time for stories every morning, and then every night I run late and miss it, I will do considerable damage to that relationship and my daughters will not trust me about story time or anything else.  That constitutes a relationship in peril.

In my view, based on my observations of the opinions of other riders both in online forums and in face to face discussions, the TAC has exhausted its trust balance with many in the motorcycling community.  The TAC simply is not trusted by the riding community at the moment, and this has been the case at least since "reduce the risks" in 2009, which was when I started to pay attention to people's views on this subject.

This has two implications for the TAC:

  1. Riders who do not trust them will not be receptive to any message from the TAC that is directed at them; and
  2. anything the TAC says or does that can be interpreted in a negative way is most likely going to be interpreted in a negative way.
Before the TAC can have any broader success trying to deliver a safety message targeting riders, trust will have to be re-established.  This is no small task, and it is made harder every time the TAC responds to criticism with a justification of its actions to date.  Self-justification and rebuttal are not the same as listening, and one of the criticisms of the TAC that has eroded trust is the perception that they do not listen.  The TAC has a big job to do simply to convince riders that they care about rider safety, and starting press releases focusing on how much money TAC has to spend to compensate and rehabilitate riders is not a particularly wise place to start.  Riders would prefer to think of themselves as a vulnerable and valuable road user group rather than a financial liability.  I don't think that's too unreasonable.

2.  Choose the right message

Successive governments have told Victorians that speeding fines are about safety, not revenue.  Then, when the Baillieu government needs help to balance the budget, the headline news proclaims that speeding fines are being increased.  You can't blame people for being cynical about speeding fines and speed cameras; though I'm sure most are myth rather than fact it still seems like every other week that somebody complains that a 70 zone has been re-designated a 60 zone and had a speed camera installed.

The topic of speeding is therefore already a sensitive area for many people.  When you factor in a lack of trust in the institutions who are banging on about speeding (TAC, Victoria Police) it becomes very difficult to make a message that will be taken on face value.  If that message is then scripted in such a way as to appear disingenuous in some way, such as speeding by 8km/h being fatal but sticking to the speed limit is magically perfectly safe, and a lot of people are going to switch off in disgust.

A safety message that nobody will listen to is not an effective safety message at all, regardless of how technically accurate or representative it may be.  A bad or confused safety message is very close to doomed from the very start, in terms of its efficacy.  

There are 2 sides to the road safety coin: causality, and consequences.  Causality relates to the causing or precipitating factors or events that lead to an incident or accident; consequences obviously relate to factors that affect the outcome of an incident or accident.  In simple terms, there are two things to work on: preventing the accident from taking place, and mitigating or minimising the consequences if it does happen.

This latest ad is an example where the message has become so jumbled that it loses impact and plausibility.  I break it down like this:
  • Impact velocity caused a broken neck injury (consequence)
  • Approach velocity was too fast for the rider to react to the hazard (causality)
  • If the rider was doing the speed limit, it wouldn't have happened (attempt to address causality, poorly executed)
  • Implication: do the speed limit, you live; speed, you die (untrue and unhelpful; I know the details of a few of the motorcycle fatalities in 2012 from eye witnesses, and in those instances the motorcyclist's speed relative to the speed limit was not a factor)
The majority of the emphasis on motorcycle safety needs to be directed at causality.  It's far better not to have the accident in the first place.  That said, consequence mitigation shouldn't be neglected as it is one aspect of safety that is completely in the control of the rider, something that can't be said of causal factors.

3.  Choose the right messenger

Messages focused on causality need to be trustworthy - that is, to be effective, the intended audience needs to trust their accuracy.  The greater the balance in the trust bank, the more leniency the audience will be prepared to offer on this point.  Conversely,  the lower the trust balance, the less patience the audience will have with the message, and the sooner they will be willing to simply call "bullshit" and switch off.

This is the main point I have tried to impress upon the TAC with respect to the latest ad.  The connection of the approach velocity to the speed limit of the road is a glaring problem in the mind of the target audience.  It is disingenuous, a fact that has been written into the script to support the message, and the riding community has jacked up at it, doubly so since the follow up material on Spokes exonerates the driver of all responsibility (I'll come back to that).

South Australia released an ad 'No Place To Race' recently focusing on speed and rider behaviour as a causal factor in accidents.  It's pretty graphic, though not by TAC standards, and finishes with Mick Doohan saying "If I faced the same obstacles on the race track that you face on the road, I'd probably be dead."  It is an excellent ad, very effective visually, and the script for Mick is one that is natural for a person in his position to say (as a professional racing rider).  He doesn't come across as stilted or forced like so many adrenaline junkie professionals do when giving a "do as I say not as I do" message.  In short, the ad is credible and trustworthy.

The TAC has stated its intention to make speeding as socially unacceptable as drink driving has become.  As such they are appealing to peer pressure and social pressure to reinforce their message.  "If you drink, then drive, you're a bloody idiot" was pretty effective in this regard.  A nice simple slogan, easy to remember, easy for the population to digest.  Appropriate and effective, one might say.  The translation of this approach to speeding has encountered a few problems along the way.

Firstly, speed limits and speed enforcement are hot and controversial topics in the public at large.  People simply don't trust the authorities that the speed policies in Victoria are driven by safety concerns.  There are many roads that have had their limit reduced over the last 10 years, and people still clearly remember being able to travel at 100 on the Calder Freeway and the Monash Freeway, to name just two.  A lot of trust needs to be won back before the broader population will be receptive to messages focused upon the speed limit.

Secondly, motorcycle riders are a minority group to begin with.  We already face ridicule and scorn from friends and family when we take up riding to begin with.  We already endure labels such as "temporary Australians" and "organ donors" from our peers.  When I bought my first motorcycle, the guys at work put my name down on the "risks" column of the project management plan.  Appealing to peer pressure and social pressure is not going to be an effective strategy to combat rider behaviour; we riders are accustomed to not giving a stuff what other people say, even other riders.

It's also fair to say that Victoria Police are not necessarily the most popular group of people with the motorcycle riding community - there are issues of trust there, too.  In my experience most people are ok about getting caught doing something they know is wrong and taking it on the chin; not to say they wouldn't prefer not to be caught, but there's not a lot of victim mentality going on.  But there are a few very sore points that are lingering in Victoria at the moment.  Riders being sent notices in the mail to report to the EPA to have their exhaust noise level tested was deeply unpopular.  It was interpreted as an out-and-out tax on motorcyclists, since the rider had no alternative but to pay up for the test even if that test proved that the bike was legal in the first place.

The acquittal of a Police Officer charged with dangerous driving causing death after colliding with a motorcyclist in the Black Forest has also touched a nerve.  One would have thought that a driver performing an illegal u-turn across double lines in thick fog colliding with a motorcyclist would have been a fairly clear cut case of driver culpability; at least, many motorcyclists thought just that.  That the jury acquitted the driver was seen as sending the message to drivers that it is ok to kill motorcyclists.  That the driver was a police officer undermined trust in Victoria Police; whether that is just or unjust is not the point, the point is that it has happened and it is real.

So the choice of having an officer of Victoria Police walking us through a scenario where a car failed to give way to a motorcycle but the blame is placed on the rider, combined with the supporting material on spokes exonerating the driver by appealing to exactly the same case law that was used in the defense of the driver in the Black Forest accident in 2009 was ... shall we say "poor."  It demonstrates an appalling lack of understanding and appreciation of the target audience on behalf of the TAC.

The best choice of messenger would be someone who has learned the lesson that you are trying to communicate, and has learned it the hard way.  There is no shortage of riders in Victoria who have discovered that they were riding too fast for the conditions, and discovered it to their cost.  in 2010 the MRAVic offered to assist TAC by getting them in touch with riders who would be happy to help communicate safety messages to the riding community.  This is an offer that the TAC was unwise not to take up, in my opinion.


  1. John Thompson wants to know how to get motorcyclists to stop speeding and wear safety gear? To me, that sounds like a somewhat loaded question. But then, as Covey would say, my trust bank is a little low on funds.

    I would have preferred if he'd asked "how can we stop motorcyclists being killed or injured on the roads"? I think that's a much more reasonable question, and one that would elicit a much more useful response.

    Anyway, I'm glad to hear that the TAC are, at least on appearance, waking up and starting to engage riders. I sincerely hope that John Thompson and his crew listen to what you have to say, although many others have gone before you and failed (some being burnt quite badly in the process).

    Lets be honest, the TAC have a mountain of trust debt to pay back before their account is back in the black.

  2. The most important thing for a rider is its safety on a motorbike. I think perfect motorbike gears can save a rider from serious injuries.