Monday, May 14, 2012

State of the union

Sent to John Thompson today:

Good afternoon John,

as discussed I have spent the weekend developing my thoughts on how the TAC is failing in its current approach to motorcycle safety and its engagement of the motorcycling community.  You raised two concerns that you would welcome input on: protective clothing and speeding.  I have some suggestions to make on those two issues, however before I can do that I need to lay a little ground work addressing the core issues that I believe underpin the disconnect between motorcyclists and the TAC.  For this purpose, I am going to talk about "motorcyclists"; obviously I cannot speak the mind of all motorcyclists however I am going to relate my opinion and impression of the motorcycling community's thoughts and opinions, which has been confirmed to me by the response to the petition I launched (over 800 signatures now) and comments fed back to me via the facebook page and comments & emails in response to my personal blog on motorcycling.

1.  Motorcyclists do not trust the TAC

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, 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.
I have taken the following slide from your GRSP Asia Seminar slide deck to illustrate the point:

Engagement is the piece of this puzzle that is lacking.  The TAC burned a lot of trust capital with the "reduce the risks" campaign, and that lost trust has not been rebuilt in the years that followed.

(I trust that this doesn't really need to be said, but I am going to qualify this point anyway just for the sake of absolute clarity.  I am describing the emotions, attitudes and opinions of motorcyclists.  These are human reactions and responses, not necessarily reasoned, rational objections.  You may well dispute some of the conclusions that motorcyclists draw, and you may even have facts on your side to do so, but please hear me that the TAC getting defensive and justifying itself does nothing to improve motorcyclist engagement or trust in the TAC.  If you genuinely want to overcome communication issues with the motorcycling community, you will need to set aside the impulse to defend the TAC and past actions, and listen to these concerns because whether or not the concerns are justified, they are real, and they form a real impediment to motorcyclists trust in and engagement with the TAC.)

Motorcyclists are a minority group.  We feel like a persecuted minority group.  Drivers fail to see us, or fail to look.  Our families nag us, harass us, disown us.  Victoria Police run special operations targeting us.  This all contributes to a heightened sense of alienation, which the TAC needs to overcome if they are going to effectively communicate with motorcyclists.  This is not happening.

Here are some examples of TAC actions or behaviour that undermines or erodes trust:
  • "Motorcycle riders targeted in new TAC campaign" - headline, press release 26 April 2012.  The TAC targets dangerous, illegal, and socially unacceptable practices and behaviour such as speeding, drink driving, texting while driving, and so on.  In that same list, and in that same language, the TAC announces that it is targeting motorcycle riders.  This inclusion of motorcyclists alongside a list of other vices is a very effective way of communicating that the TAC is against motorcyclists, not for them.  The first sentence of that press release reads "The Victorian Coalition Government's attack on the road toll was boosted this morning with the launch of a new, hard-hitting TAC campaign targeting motorcycles and speed."  Targeting motorcycles and speed.  Two evils of our roads.
  • Further in that same press release: "Despite accounting for only 3.8 per cent of all registered vehicles, injuries to motorcyclists account for 20 per cent of the TAC's no-fault costs..."  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.  The facts are immaterial compared to the message being sent: riders are too expensive, we are going to do something about it.  Not "riders are being injured in too great numbers."  Think about what is being communicated, and the impact that has upon the receptiveness of your target audience.
  • 2009 Reduce the Risks campaign: the tv commercial for this campaign compiled every negative behaviour and stereotype of motorcyclists into one action-packed segment.  The TAC has been quoted (it may even have been you John?) as saying that their goal is to make speeding as socially unacceptable as drink driving has become.  This ad seems to indicate that TAC is aiming to do the same with motorcycles; make them socially unacceptable.  The ad was overwhelmingly negative in its depiction of riders, and its reception amongst riders was correspondingly negative.
  • 2009 Reduce the Risks - post campaign response: it is believed that the TAC considers the Reduce the Risks campaign to have been successful, as it generated a lot of discussion among motorcyclists.  (I hope that isn't true.)  That rumour or belief poured fuel on the fire of motorcyclists' distrust; in response to that ad, motorcyclists were up in arms, indignant that that TAC ad was so overwhelmingly negative, focusing on the worst behaviour and delivering a negative image of riders where everything bad that happens to them is their own fault.  For this outcry to be interpreted as meaning the campaign is successful is out and out offensive, and further estranges riders from the TAC.
  • 2009 Reduce the risks - response to criticism: the response to individuals providing feedback in that campaign was extremely poorly managed.  I know of one person who read the Flinders University report upon which some of the statistics were based (the 38 times stat), and discovered that the authors of the study identified that particular statistic was based upon crude approximations of kilometres traveled and therefore they stated it was a dubious figure that should not be relied upon.  This individual delivered this feedback to the TAC via email.  When a response was received, it stated that the 38 times figure was drawn from a recent study undertaken by Flinders University, etc.  This response left the clear impression that the feedback had not so much as been read, and that the responses to it were form letters or paragraphs copied from the Spokes website.
  • 2012 Motorcycle Reconstruction - post campaign response: again the release of the tv ad provoked an angry response from motorcyclists.  The response to this anger and criticism of the ad has been a stubborn repetition of statistics rather than an acknowledgement of or engagement with the criticisms leveled or questions raised.  This is true of the defense published in the Herald Sun in response to the Maurice Blackburn opinion piece, and is equally true of the response I received from Jessica Truong on Friday night, my reply to which I cc'd you on.  In that instance, I asked one question: "if you repeat that exact scenario but set it in a 70 zone, what has the ad achieved?"  The fact that nobody has spoken to that question in any way does not engender trust in the feedback and accountability processes at work within the TAC.
  • Speed fixation.  For example, in the TAC defense of this latest campaign, it was stated that "[a]nalysis of crash data from 2008-2010 shows that speed was a contributing factor to 50% of motorcyclist fatalities in 60km/h zones and in 70km/h zones."  As was brought out in the parliamentary enquiry into motorcycle safety earlier this year, this "crash data" captures speed as a binary field: yes, or no.  It does not elaborate or state that speed was excessive or illegal, it just states that in the view of the investigating officer, speed was a factor.  Indeed in my question previously raised - what happens if you set it in a 70 zone - one speculates as to whether speed would be identified as one of the causes; the answer is that it ought to be, since regardless of the speed limit of the road, the rider was traveling too fast for him to be able to respond to the hazard, given his level of riding skill.  I make this observation merely to highlight the difference between (inappropriate) speed and speeding, a distinction that I will come back to.
(Again let me state that I do not want you to defend the TAC with respect to the above list.  I am not trying to accuse the TAC here, nor am I looking to enter a reasoned debate about the facts above.  I am trying to explain to the TAC that they are not trusted by the motorcycling community, and are not recognised either as experts in the area of motorcycle safety or as advocates promoting safer motorcycling.  You may not like that opinion being held of the TAC, and you may disagree with it on every level.  But it is I believe the reality that the TAC is facing, and is the biggest hurdle to the TAC making a positive impact communicating directly to motorcyclists.)

To summarise: the TAC is not trusted by motorcyclists, and is perceived as being adversarial towards motorcyclists and anti motorcycling.  Whether this view is justified is not the point; it is a reality that the TAC needs to accept and address if it is going to be successful in its attempts to communicate with riders.  This should come as no surprise to the TAC; during the Parliamentary enquiry into motorcycle safety, the Hon Mr Languiller asked the TAC representative whether discouraging riding was one of the goals of the TAC campaigns, and on receiving a negative answer, indicated that the ads certainly had that affect upon him.

Coming back to your diagram then, the situation is that the necessary engagement is not present with the target audience.  Furthermore because of the lack of trust, the emotions that are generated by the campaign are not the ones that were intended.  No motorcyclist I know or have heard from responded to that ad with a sense of fear of that possible outcome, or shock at the difference those 8km/h could make.  They all responded with outrage that the focus of this ad was upon the speed of the rider not the (perceived) negligent driving of the car, an outrage that was amplified by the supporting materials on Spokes which exonerated the driver of responsibility for the crash.

So we have a lack of engagement and a negative reaction.  The educational component of the ad has for all intents and purposes been lost.  Not only do the riders not want to hear it because of anger and mistrust, but the technical execution of the ad elicits scorn from a number of riders due to perceived errors and inaccuracies with the physics of the braking distances etc.  That the TAC appeared to try to enter into debate about the question of braking distances in one radio piece (I think it was 3AW) was a particularly poor choice, further alienating the audience who now feel that the TAC has no idea about the realities of riding a bike and doesn't even understand how motorcycle brakes work.

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.  The TAC is choosing the wrong messages

There are two things that keep motorcyclists alive on our roads: riding skill, and road craft.  I don't know if you have ever ridden a motorcycle, but the safe operation of a motorcycle is very different and more demanding than operating a car.  The reality is much more complicated than this, but for the simplest of introductions to the topic, consider gravity.  Leave a car at the mercy of gravity, and it does just what it is supposed to do - it stays in position, all 4 wheels in contact with the road, and all is well.  Leave a motorcycle at the mercy of gravity, it falls over.  Everything a motorcyclist does while riding the bike is focused upon balancing gravity against other forces while getting the bike where they want it to go.  This makes it much more difficult to construct a nice sound-bite safety message that targets motorcycle operation, since it isn't helpful or useful to present motorcycle safety as the byproduct of "slowing down won't kill you" at work. 

Working with the current ad as an example of the message being wrong, slowing down to the speed limit of 60 (as the ad was scripted) wouldn't kill the rider.  Set the incident in a 70 zone, and slowing down to the speed limit of 70 wouldn't save him either.  Safe operation of a motorcycle is dictated by what speed is appropriate for the conditions.  I am not trying to justify it being "safe" to go above the limit if the conditions are good, though I have heard that argument from riders.  The point is that for a rider to be safe in the kind of scenario the ad depicts, the rider needs to be able to judge what is a safe speed in those conditions, and that speed is determined by, among other things, their level of skill in operating the motorcycle - in this instance, emergency braking and counter-steering.

So the choice of messages is wrong; of course it is valid to say that the rider suffers less injuries if they travel at 60 rather than 68, but then we enter the spiral to the lowest common denominator whereby the rider suffers less injuries if they travel at 50, or at 40, or at 30.  The kinds of messages that may be more effective are those that focus upon rider skills and road craft; in essence, the difference between a legal speed and a safe and legal speed; and how to ride to avoid and prevent situations like this from happening in the first place.  The RTA of NSW has a long running campaign devoted to choosing your corners which I trust you are familiar with.  It is an excellent campaign in my opinion, as it highlights the need for appropriate riding skills, it identifies both the positive and negative consequences for getting it right or wrong, and it is applicable to any rider on any corner without being tied to a certain speed limit, road type, environment etc.  Another ad I highly recommend is SA's "no place to race" campaign.  It is much more targeted at a specific demographic within the riding community but it is well scripted, and very visually striking.  But they haven't gone for the angle that would have my wife up sleepless at night; in other words while being an arresting ad, it has an intellectual hook rather than an emotional one.  The thing that makes this ad, however, is having Mick Doohan deliver the punchline in a way that is very natural.  He is a voice that motorcyclists know and respect, and he is saying something that is easy to believe.  Far too often this kind of "celebrity endorsement" seems cheap and false, like if one was to get Mark Weber to say "no kids, you shouldn't drive fast or spin your wheels" reading it dead pan from an autocue - it just wouldn't work.  Mick Doohan pulled it off, and if you insist on going for graphic, negative consequence ads, I suggest you have your team study that one and see how they've pulled it off.

So what are the right messages?  Ones that focus on riding skills and road craft are in my opinion best.  Ones that focus on consequences certainly have their place, but your challenge there is how to overcome the "it won't happen to me" factor.  This is where the technical details of the ad can let you down, like a rider skidding the back wheel of a sports bike for 21 metres... it leaves lots of wriggle room for your intended audience to dismiss the ad because it lacks credibility in the mind of the audience (no matter what the stats may or may not say).

Again, motorcyclists are a stubborn mob who don't trust the TAC and are very used to being told that "motorbikes are dangerous" by people who have never ridden one in their life.  If you want to overcome those obstacles and start effectively communicating with the riding audience, you are going to need to:
  • (re)establish trust with riders
  • choose messages that make sense to riders, and
  • deliver them in a trustworthy way
I won't elaborate any more on this theme.  On the whole there's nothing that I've said here that wasn't said in the presentation made to the TAC by the MRA Vic back in 2010, so none of this should come as any great shock to you.  Which, by the way, makes the current campaign that much more disappointing, but I'll come back to that a little later.

3.  Choosing the right message

Of all the statistics surrounding motorcycle fatalities from 2011, the one that I find the most disturbing is that 17 fatalities were recorded as "running off straight road."  That's more than 30% who in the eyes of the investigating police officer(s) just ran off the road.  Now there's nothing in this world that a motorcycle likes to do better than travel in a straight line.  If you watch videos on stunting crashes on YouTube you'll notice the regularity with which once the rider has fallen off his bike, the bike just continues on straight ahead until it hits something.  So why did 1 in 3 of the fatal accidents occur on straight stretches of road without the involvement of another vehicle?  I can think of a number of possibilities, some are more or less likely than others, such as there was an oncoming vehicle that precipitated the accident by driving onto the wrong side of the road, but it failed to stop.  If you watched the videos that I sent you in my previous email you will have seen a couple of examples of this sort of driving which could easily have resulted in a motorcycle fatality of this nature.  If you add in the number of crashes marked as "run off road on curve" we account for 25 fatalities in 2011 - half, in other words.

Half of the fatalities in 2011 are attributable to a lack of rider skill and road craft on straights and bends, that don't appear to involve other vehicles.  How do we address that?  We need to focus on rider skills and road craft:
  • Planning corners
  • Understanding target fixation
  • Correct determining of safe speed
  • Counter-steering
  • Emergency braking and emergency stops
  • Evasive maneuvers
  • Anticipation of hazards ahead
  • Lane positioning (to keep away from gravel on the shoulder of the road)
And so on.  These topics may not lend themselves to nice sound bites, but I reckon they will be more effective in saving lives.  And they are consistent with the TAC's statements that regardless of who's at fault, the rider always loses, and that it is up to the rider to reduce the risks.  Riders must take personal responsibility for their safety, and the TAC should be encouraging that with positive reinforcement and education, rather than trying to outdo itself with negative and emotive shock advertising.

4.  Outcome Evaluation
The presentation to the GRSP Asia Seminar talks about Outcome Evaluation of a campaign.  Clearly this isn't something that is published for general consumption, but I think it would be worth your while re-evaluating the evaluation of the Reduce the Risks campaign.  Certainly by the primary metrics I have available to me - annual motorcycle fatalities, and % of TAC spend - the campaign would be considered a failure.  Furthermore it should have ticked boxes in your "negative media coverage" column, not to mention the outrage is triggered in the motorcycling community, leading to a protest ride around Melbourne CBD with state news coverage.
From a motorcyclist's perspective, that campaign was an offensive debacle from start to finish, compounded by the TACs refusal to acknowledge that they'd screwed it up.  I would encourage you to compare my assessment with the TACs own post campaign review, because I suspect the internal review will tell a very different story and, if it does, I think you should be very concerned.
I am a pretty reasonable and forgiving individual, but I fully expected that in the aftermath of the reduce the risks campaign, the TAC would have learned some lessons and improved its approach.  Now that the Motorcycle Reconstruction campaign has been released it is evident that there hasn't been any learning or change of approach in the TAC towards motorcycle safety.  As the head of that area John, I think you ought to be asking the question why.  If I were a shareholder of TAC I would be attending the AGM to demand answers, with the expectation that whoever was responsible for this campaign would either resign or be shown the door.  As it is I am limited in my powers, I have to content myself with trying to raise the problem within the TAC by speaking with yourself and Tracey Slatter, and from without by going through the minister for road safety and my local MP.  With more than 800 names now on the petition I am able to speak representing more people than just myself; I hope that is something that the TAC is mindful of and takes seriously.

5.  Next Steps

Once I hear from you that you've had a chance to read and digest what I've written in this and my previous emails, I will make an appointment with you to come down and discuss these issues face to face.  We are in agreement that the reality of motorcycle accidents in Victoria is appalling and over the last 2 years has gotten worse instead of better, so I trust that we are also in agreement that the TAC needs to change its approach and methods on the subject.

As a next step I would be grateful if you could provide me with:
  • your responses to the issues I have raised both about the current campaign and those issues contained in this email
  • a summary of the post campaign review of the reduce the risks campaign, with a particular emphasis on what the TAC has already done to attempt to repair trust with motorcyclists
  • any plans that are currently under way to address the fallout of the current campaign
With that information I will be able to put together an agenda of ideas that we can discuss in person without going over old ground that has already been covered.  This should enable us to start taking some positive steps towards stemming the human tide of motorcycling casualties by focusing on the causal issues that are precipitating so many injuries and tragedies, and on rebuilding the relationship between motorcyclists and the TAC so that we can more effectively work together to improve motorcycle safety in this state.

Yours Sincerely,

Ross Daws


  1. Proves once again that my brother is actually pretty awesome.

    Now if only they will listen. :|

  2. phat chance of them listening

  3. Well written.

    Regarding the ad that is now being shown, slowit down. At what point did the car driver see the bike (if at all) He/she MUST have seen it at some point before the crash or the driver was NOT looking and therefore negligent. Now, if the driver saw the bike after traveling to the point of seeing the bike, why did the driver then NOT STOP, instead of proceeding to try to beat the bike. A fatal error on the part of the driver. The bike only had braking as an option instead of also being able to swerve around the front of the car. Bloody stupid ad Mr TAC. Get right or shut up.

  4. At the moment they can neither get it right nor shut up.

    All their initiatives of the last 3 years have failed - fatalities and injuries are as high as they've been for the last decade. They have to at least be seen to be doing something, but I actually believe they honestly want to do something about it too.

    But they cannot get it right. They are not listening to motorcyclists, and they are not working with motorcyclists. This last campaign was put together with Victoria Police, which is fine in terms of getting the details of a "typical urban accident" as it were. But they haven't been able to understand the differences in their target audience compared to a typical campaign they run.

    With most of the work TAC does, they are the voice of reason and common sense, and most of the population would completely agree with the position they take. Drink-driving to the point you kill another carload of people is wrong, unacceptable. They have an established track record of attacking such driving behaviour in a way that makes them the champion of us good people who don't drink and drive. They're used to being the good guys, so to speak.

    They've tried to take this same approach when dealing with motorcyclists, and in doing so have lumped motorcycles into the same list of evils as drink drivers and texting drivers. And I believe that they honestly don't understand why what they've done isn't working, and have no idea why it is making us so angry.

    Based on the evidence of their past performance in tackling the safety of motorcyclists, the TAC is not qualified or competent to do this sort of campaign. Given they're an award-winning outfit who present seminars on how to construct safety campaigns, I think this is a truth that they are having a lot of trouble stomaching.

  5. Ross, thanks for your perceptive insights. One of the aspects that apalled me most was when the Spokes website condones the drivers behaviour, and cites case law as a defence if there was the possibility of the biker speeding, as so many of us allegedly do. How is this in any way responsible behaviour? What about the fact that there is an obstruction blocking the drivers view to the right, which should have CLEARLY made the driver more alert of possible oncoming traffic.
    As you point out, what happens if the rider had been in a 70 kph zone?
    Why is the TAC also lying by claiming that they have spoken with the Victorian Motorcycle Council?
    Lastly, why do they fail to show the courtesy and respect for motorcyclists that they expect us to show them? Our anger and frustration is at the insidious way we are misrepresented by sensationalist and ridiculous ads. Get it right TAC, because we have the right to ride, and taxpayers have the right to expect truthful and worthwhile ads that educate and inspire, rather than ostracise and generalise.

  6. Ross, great piece. Now that I'm aware of your blog, I'll have to tune in.

    If you have a look at table 2 in the TAC submission to the RSC, serious injuries remained roughly the same (based on the hospital stays) and total accepted claims in 2010 were 25% higher than 2005. This occurred while riding participation increased by about half! This is a real terms reduction in injuries which should be a success story!

    Since the peak in the motorcycle fatality count in the early 2000's, there has been a gradual decreasing trend in raw fatality count. This reduction occurred whilst motorcycling uptake virtually doubled - which means a very strong real terms decrease. Another success story.

    So contrary to popular opinion, in REAL TERMS, there's been a clear decrease in both injury and fatality rate and on the fatality front, an actual count decrease. This is a good news story yes? Well it should be, but it's not, not according to the approach TAC has taken and the negative motorcycling campaigns amping up community fears.

    The TAC and VicPol are addicted to comparing actual raw counts on a year to year basis and they want to see stats go down. This is what they've seen with cars and it's what they want to see with bikes, irrespective of the participation increase and irrespective of how sensitive the stats are to small changes. The thing with cars though, is that manufacturers have been improving occupant survivability at the same time as speed limits have dropped and road engineering has improved, so occupant survivability has made clear and increasing improvements. Bikes aren't cars. Riders are exposed. Yet we've still managed great real terms reductions whilst congestion and car blindspots have increased. Another success story! Why do people think riding is more dangerous than ever then?

    Motorcycling's crime is that it hasn't been able to record an actual clear and consistent decrease in it's raw count stats - which is a very tall order given the strong increase in year to year participation.

    Despite our gains, the incessant apples and oranges comparison to cars can't but help to paint a negative picture - which I guess is one of the subtexts of the TAC's campaigns,"...bikes are not cars but they oughta be."

    Good luck with your endeavours with the TAC. You certainly have my support.

  7. An extremely well written letter. Well done bloke.
    I also wrote them a letter. It can be read on my site here.

    Lets keep the pressure up.


  8. This address works