It’s estimated that auto manufacturers collectively spend about 35 billion advertising dollars each year in the U.S. alone. Last year, car dealers in the U.S. spent $7.48 billion in marketing. There is no doubt that advertising influences behavior.
But much of auto marketing’s influence may not be limited strictly to buying preferences. Compare these two facts side by side: Reckless driving is one of the leading causes of motor vehicle death in the country. And research has shown that nearly half of U.S. car commercials feature sequences of reckless driving. This means that billions of dollars are being spent promoting behaviors that kill thousands of Americans each year.
Could safer auto marketing practices help to decrease reckless driving? The answer remains to be seen. In the tobacco industry, a correlation was found between advertising bans and a reduction in smoking. The evidence linking car ads to reckless driving is strong, and tighter regulations on advertising could have some effect on driving patterns.
To further explore this question, let’s look at reckless driving, the way it is promoted in car ads, and the prevalence of reckless driving in the U.S. and Pennsylvania. Finally, we will consider several methods that have been implemented nationally and globally to help curb dangerous driving.
What Is the Definition of Reckless Driving?
Reckless driving is generally considered to be driving that puts the lives of other people in danger. This term can include speeding, risky driving, and aggressive driving. The driving actions often associated with reckless driving include:
- Speeding or driving too fast for conditions
- Taking turns too quickly
- Changing lanes without warning
- Running red lights and disregarding traffic signals
- Driving on medians, sidewalks, or other areas not intended for driving
- Abrupt turns, “donuts,” figure eights, swerving, and circling
- Changing speeds suddenly
- Passing where prohibited
If any of these driving behaviors sound familiar to you, there is a good chance you have seen one or more in a car commercial.
How Is Auto Marketing Related to Reckless Driving?
It’s no secret that the United States has a love affair with fast cars. But for the past two decades or more, speeding has been a factor in roughly one-third of all motor vehicles deaths. And recently, a disturbing turn toward faster, more aggressive driving behaviors during the COVID-19 pandemic was observed.
It’s not a far stretch to wonder if car ads might be one part of the problem. Research has shown that auto marketing can, in fact, promote acceptance and normalization of reckless driving.
As an experiment, we did a quick Google search of some of the nation’s top auto brands. The language we found was indicative of the image car manufacturers are eager to sell to U.S. consumers. “Tough.” “Thrill-seeker.” “Aggressive.” “Uncompromising power.” “Earthshaking muscle.” “Stability at high speeds.” “Ready to race.” “Take over the road.”
One seasonal ad marketed the power of 797 horses to crush autumn leaves. Another brand encouraged its online audience to “smash that like button.” As a culture, we have come to associate names like Ram, Rogue, Escape, Gladiator, Trailblazer, Charger, Renegade, and other terms suggesting physical aggression with the vehicles we drive to work every day.
And these terms aren’t reserved for sports cars and cargo trucks alone. Power and speed-geared marketing tactics are used regularly on the sedans that spend most of their lives on city streets designed to be travelled at 45 mph or less.
The following behaviors are ones frequently observed in car commercials:
- Racing on narrow roadways and paths intended for much slower driving.
- Maneuvers that result in smoking tires and tire tracks on the road.
- Speeding through the kind of city intersections where thousands of pedestrians are killed annually.
- Multitasking while driving, a behavior known to cause distracted driving accidents.
- Plowing through obstacles in nature, construction zones, or other unsafe areas.
- Highlighting the power of a car to go up to 200 MPH, when it’s illegal to drive over 70 mph in most of the country.
- Driving on narrow, rocky cliff edges and dangerous mountain surfaces.
- Travelling faster than all other vehicles on the road.
How Prevalent Is Reckless Driving in the U.S. and in Pennsylvania?
Reports from the World Health Organization (WHO) reveal that the U.S. car accident fatality rate is nearly twice that of other countries of similar economic status, such as Canada, Australia, Japan, and nations in Western Europe. One major contributing factor is the amount of time Americans spend on the road in personal vehicles. The second major factor is the abundance of dangerous driving behaviors. A high prevalence of speeding, drunk driving, lack of seat belt use, and pedestrian accidents has led to high rates of fatality.
Our state of Pennsylvania is not immune to these aggressive behind-the-wheel behaviors. Reckless actions like speeding, illegal passing, and distracted driving are among the top five traffic laws broken in Pennsylvania. In the most recent statewide reports, there were 29,640 speeding-related crashes in Pennsylvania which resulted in 415 fatalities in a single year.
What Can Be Done to Reduce Reckless Driving?
If marketing is causing a popular tolerance of unsafe driving, then it may be time to consider placing limitations on what auto marketing agencies can portray in advertisements. The U.S. would not be the first country to crack down on dangerous driving in ads.
In 2018, advertisements from Ford, Fiat-Chrysler, and Nissan were banned in the U.K. for promoting reckless driving. Australia’s Federal Chamber for Automotive Industries Motor Vehicle Advertising Code expressly prohibits advertisements for motor vehicles which portray reckless driving. Other countries in Europe also have similar government or industry-regulated guidelines. While regulations like these would certainly not fix all of our national driving problems, it may be a step in the right direction.
Irresponsible marketing, however, is not the only problem. If true reform is to happen, a more holistic approach needs to be embraced. One method being implemented with some success is referred to as “traffic calming.” The Institute of Traffic Engineers (ITE) describes traffic calming as the strategic use of mostly physical measures that help to reduce negative driver behaviors.
Speed bumps, chicanes, tree-lined streets, wider bike lanes, parked police cars, speed cameras, and even creative strategies like optical illusion crosswalks have had a positive impact on encouraging slower, more thoughtful driving. A 2019 study conducted here in Philadelphia even determined that paving streets with asphalt, granite block, and brick materials was an effective traffic calming strategy.
There are other methods that have shown success as well. Some of these include stricter and better enforced traffic laws, the use of PSAs, offering incentives to use public transportation or ridesharing, improved biking pathways, technology to combat drunk driving, and better education on the dangers of reckless driving.
Road safety is important to us. If you have questions about reckless driving, car accident law, or a case in which you were injured, reach out to our office to speak with an attorney. Our legal team at Shrager & Sachs can schedule a free consultation to answer your questions.