Traffic Safety Campaigns Are a Huge Waste of Money

Slate confirms what you probably already guessed: no one drives better because of a billboard.

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Traffic safety campaigns are often incredibly lame, but a new deep dive into the depressing world of state-funded PSAs by Slate shows they aren’t just lame, they’re expensive and completely ineffective as well.

Indeed, traffic PSAs are the triple threat of public policy. American roads are getting more and more dangerous every year, and policy makers really don’t have time for ineffective messaging, especially when that messaging costs hundreds of millions of federal dollars:

But many education campaigns don’t offer supportive services, or threaten punishment, or even contain new information—as anyone who has driven by a “Please Drive Carefully” highway sign (or encountered Maryland’s Signal Woman) will recognize. Such stand-alone education campaigns presume that general awareness alone can shift roadway habits—an assumption that is shaky at best.

In 2008, the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine’s Transportation Research Board published a landmark study that surveyed a vast array of traffic safety research. The authors did not pull their punches. “The simplistic assumption [of roadway safety campaigns] is that if individuals are made aware of behaviors that will enhance their personal health or safety and urged to adopt these behaviors, they will do so,” they wrote. “Seemingly logical, this sequence of events is unlikely to happen.”

The conclusion: “Information-only programs are unlikely to work, especially when most of the audience already knows what to do. Therefore, highway safety messages conveyed in signs, pamphlets, brochures, on buttons, etc. … are unlikely to have any effect on behavior.”

In other words, much of traffic safety education—campaigns that simply convey a message that is already familiar—is pointless.


Serious, funny, informative, frightening; it didn’t matter what sort of message was being presented, they were all pointless. What does work? Well, you might not like it, but streets need to redesigned, the domination of the car in our lives curtailed transportation and city planning in general reimagined if we’re ever going to cut down on the carnage on the road. But that sounds tedious and not very fun:

The good news is that there are plenty of compelling traffic safety strategies available to officials ready and willing to adjust those proportions. Rather than chiding drivers not to speed, what if we designed our roads and streets to be slower, or if we mandated intelligent speed governors, as the European Union has done, or installed more automatic speed cameras, an approach that earned the maximum five stars in NHTSA’s Countermeasures That Work? Instead of reminding drivers to “please drive carefully,” what if we disincentivized the oversize trucks and SUVs that are most likely to kill upon impact (a move that NHTSA recently declined to take)?

Although these interventions could save more lives than an education campaign, they risk antagonizing powerful political forces. Oversize SUVs and trucks, for instance, put other road users at risk, but they’re also immensely profitable for car companies. Speed cameras undercut the role of law enforcement officers, and many drivers detest them—much as they loathe the road diets and speed cameras that have been shown to reduce traffic deaths.


The worst part is it’s so expensive. Just one program in New York—were every surface is covered with advertisements its citizens learned to ignore long ago—cost the city $4 million to put up 18 billboards in its most dangerous neighborhoods asking folks to slow down. If it was as easy as asking folks to slow down, those little signs on the side of the road with SPEED LIMIT written on them would have done the job ages ago.

The whole thing on Slate is both mildly frustrating and fascinating. You can read the whole thing here.