Ad Blitz Reminds Motorists to ‘Watch the Road’

Times Staff Writer

When Ashleigh Kellar recently cruised by a digital sign illuminated with the warning “Watch the road,” she did just the opposite.

“It took my eyes off the road, because I was watching [the sign],” the 19-year-old Pasadena college student said.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Aug. 7, 2004 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday August 07, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 39 words Type of Material: Correction
Transportation official -- The Behind the Wheel article in Tuesday’s California section about a safety education campaign aimed at drivers misspelled the name of Lan P. Nguyen, an official in the Los Angeles Department of Transportation, as Lan Ngyuen.

But after that momentary distraction, the message sunk in, she said.

The self-described “aggressive driver” said the sign prompted her to ease up on her accelerator and lengthen the distance between her sporty white coupe and the vehicles in front of her.

“It reminded me to stay alert and pay attention,” she said.

Nudging drivers such as Kellar to be more gentle and vigilant behind the wheel is the goal of a new safety education campaign in Los Angeles County.


In addition to digital roadway signs, safe driving messages are being displayed on buses, in newspaper ads and on police car bumper stickers.

Even the colorful electronic billboard outside the Hollywood and Highland shopping complex urges motorists to “Watch the road.”

“What we’re trying to do is create a brand,” said Wayne Tanda, general manager of the Los Angeles Department of Transportation, the agency leading the countywide campaign.

“As you hear ‘Watch the road’ in all kinds of ways, you see ‘Watch the road’ everywhere you go ... Our hope is that equates to good driver behavior.”

Every year, traffic accidents kill about 700 people and injure 88,000 in Los Angeles County, said transportation officials, who blame most accidents on bad driving.

The most common causes of collisions include speeding, running red lights, drunk driving, aggressive driving -- such as tailgating or cutting in front of others in another lane -- and being inattentive -- such as chatting on a cell phone.

Sometimes others misbehave, such as when pedestrians jaywalk or bicyclists ride against traffic.

The multilingual ad campaign, which kicked off in May, aims to reduce bad driving behavior by 10% -- which transportation officials hope will reduce auto crash injuries and deaths.

Funded with $2 million in local, state and federal grants, the campaign has been boosted by donations of ad space worth millions of dollars more by public agencies and private sponsors, including the Los Angeles Times.

While public officials are enthusiastic about traffic-safety information campaigns, researchers expressed mixed feelings.

“They’re absolutely a waste of money,” said Susan Ferguson, vice president of research for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. “Appealing to [drivers’] better nature has never been shown to work.

“You need strong laws, people need to know about the laws and [there should be] periodic waves of enforcement effort with publicity. People respond to red-light cameras. They don’t respond to ‘Be nice’ slogans.”

Others say advertising, at times, can affect what people do.

“Let’s face it -- we buy products because of messages,” said E. Scott Gellar, a professor of psychology at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, who specializes in driver perception and behavior.

“Message alone can influence behavior to some extent, if the behavior is not too inconvenient.”

Gellar’s research shows that messages urging behavior change work about 20% of the time, if the information is displayed near where the desired action is to take place, the instruction is specific and the conduct is convenient, such as using turn signals.

“We have found the most effective message in safety is to make it personal and to state the consequences,” he said.

But messages have little effect on behaviors that are “costly” to adopt -- such as refraining from speeding, Gellar added, because many motorists perceive that the benefits of speeding -- getting where they are going faster -- outweigh the risks -- getting a ticket or having an accident.

The Los Angeles County campaign makes an emotional appeal, hoping to make people more receptive to the underlying message, experts say.

One bus ad shows two children holding their parents’ hands, accompanied by the reminder: “Slow down, your family is waiting for you.”

Another, scrolling across the Hollywood and Highland billboard, shows a cartoon clock and the phrase: “It’s better to lose one minute of your life than your life in one minute.”

“It’s kind of cool. It’s a positive message, telling us to slow down and be safe,” said Tom Kapacinskas, a 37-year-old Hollywood teacher, who frequently drives by the sign.

But Kapacinskas said the message has not altered his driving habits because he was already a good driver.

Most people -- even bad drivers -- believe they possess above-average driving skills; this poses a big challenge for safety education campaigns, experts say.

Their faulty self-confidence makes them believe the admonitions don’t apply to them, so they tune out.

Studies have shown that one way to improve driving behavior is to couple public education with a heightened threat of getting a ticket.

The county campaign will be accompanied by L.A. city crackdowns on bad drivers, but probably not until early next year when a state grant kicks in to pay for more officers on the streets, said Sgt. Bob Rieboldt of the Los Angeles Police Department’s Traffic Coordination section.

The city’s transportation department also is working with other local police agencies to coordinate more crackdowns.

The agency plans to monitor and evaluate the effectiveness of the safety campaign by comparing motorists’ conduct at dozens of sites before and during the ad blitz.

That way, the campaign can be fine-tuned based on what works and what doesn’t, said Lan Ngyuen, the department’s program director for the “Watch the road” campaign.

“We know it’s a challenge ... but even if you make a 1% impact, that’s seven lives you save a year,” Ngyuen said.

If the campaign achieves its goal, she added, “that would mean saving 70 lives a year, and reducing injuries by 8,800.”