‚If you ask the wrong questions, you’ll get the wrong answers every time.‛
Travelling to different conference venues means that I get to spend a lot of time in the car. One of the favourite venues of South African conference organisers is Sun City. Located in the Northwest Province in an extinct volcano crater, Sun City is one of South Africa’s premiere conference and holiday destinations. The 2 hour one way journey from Johannesburg to Sun City is reasonably scenic, and is a fairly descent road, although single-carriage most of the way � and if I’ve seen any really bad driving on my travels, most of it has been on this particular route.

Driving back from Sun City, just after the turn off onto the N4 highway that takes you between Rustenburg and Pretoria, there is a large billboard sign, put up by the South African Road Safety Campaign, ‚Drive Alive‛. The sign simply says, ‘SPEED KILLS’ and on the sign is a cheetah in the process of taking down a young springbok.
The objective of this particular campaign, of course, is to remind motorists that driving at excessively high speeds is dangerous and that speed can kill. However it struck me as I was driving home the other day and saw this sign again that there was a problem with this particular picture. The speed that killed the springbok was not that it was moving quickly but in fact that it was moving slowly. In fact, if the springbok had wanted to die an even earlier death it could have actually just stopped its motor and stood still. The speed that was killing was not the speed of the cheetah going too fast, the speed that was killing was the speed of the springbok going too slow.
It got me thinking in two different directions. The first one is fairly obvious and applies across different industries. If, as we move into the connection economy, we need storytellers – people who are able to create connections and talk in analogies and metaphors so that the complex systems of the world are made easy for the average human being – we need to make sure the storytellers that we employ tell the right stories. At first glance, and I have seen that sign many times, I could not work out why it didn’t make sense to me. The cheetah was clearly moving quickly and was clearly killing the springbok â€? ‘SPEED KILLS’ was therefore a good message. But something had always bugged me about that sign. It’s taken a few months, but I have worked it out.
The problem is that if the story doesn’t make sense, even if you are not sure why it doesn’t make sense, and even if the lack of sense is purely at a subconscious level, the story will not stick and the impact that we want the story, the analogy, the picture, the metaphor, to have will not sit in the heart and soul of the observer and will certainly not bring about any changed behaviours.
If you tell the wrong stories, you’ll produce the wrong behaviour, every time.
So it is with this particular ‘SPEED KILLS’ campaign.
But the second way that my thoughts went, was to the actual campaign itself, and as a outsider to the driver safety awareness campaign, ‘Drive Alive’ in South Africa, I must admit I have never understood their logic.
The problem with the ‘Drive Alive’ campaign is that it focuses on an area that many experts have indicated is not the primary cause of the problem it is trying to solve. Most of the ‘Drive Alive’ campaign’s promotional tactics are aimed at getting drivers to reduce their speed in an effort to stop road accidents and therefore deaths on the road. The argument is that speed is the main cause of road accidents. The problem is that there is faulty logic and faulty statistics at work within the ‘Drive Alive’ campaign.
Firstly, Drive Alive’s statistics are normally only publicised around major holidays, centering on the Easter weekend and the Christmas period. The statistics made available on the Drive Alive website show deaths over major holiday periods up to and including Easter 2004, yet only show comparative figures for all months of the year up to 2002. It is thus impossible to tell how much more pronounced accidents are during peak season. Statistics can be made to show just about anything, and unless the data and methods are known, the stats are fairly useless.
The second problem with the faulty statistics is that they don’t stress the different causes of those deaths. As far as I can ascertain from media reports over the years, the vast majority of deaths on the road, are from pedestrians being killed. Now, of course speed would contribute to pedestrian deaths, a car moving at 20 km/h is more likely to be able to stop and avoid a pedestrian than a car moving at 120km/h. But to indicate that a car moving at a 100km/h is much less likely to cause an accident than a car moving at 150km/h is entirely unproven � especially of that car is hitting a stationery object, such as a pedestrian. Although part of the problem may be the speed at which cars are travelling, the most important and vital part of the problem is pedestrians who are not making allowance for the fact that they are crossing roads on which cars are moving very quickly. Most of these deaths occur as people attempt to cross highways and many to do so during difficult conditions for motorists at nighttime or at sunrise or sunset. This surely cannot be blamed on speed alone.
Thirdly, many of the deaths and accidents and a lot of the injuries are caused by accidents involving motor vehicles that have passengers in them, especially taxis and buses. Now, although it is a generalisation, it is largely true that most taxi’s and buses in South Africa, especially those taxis and buses doing long haul routes, are far from roadworthy. Many of them as you drive up behind them have obviously skew chassis; many of them you can see would battle to stop in an instant. Now, here again, although a taxi travelling at 80km/h is certainly safer than one travelling at a 120km/h, the issue here is not that the car is travelling at a 100 or a 120 or a 150 km/h, the issue here is that it is a car that is unsafe at those speeds.
It is certainly not true to say that a well-manufactured new model motor vehicle designed to travel at high speeds, would cause an accident when trying to stop. These cars have ABS breaking and all sorts of computer-controlled adjustments to enable them to stop at short notice without skidding, swerving or spinning; and are highly responsive to the driver’s reactions. Cars that are not as responsive and cars that are blatantly un-roadworthy should clearly not be travelling at high speeds. But again the problem is not the speed at which the car is travelling, but that it is not capable or safe to travel at those speeds – or indeed at any speed. If the car did have all the safety features, speed would not be an issue. Again then, focusing simply on speed, is too simplistic an answer and all efforts should be put into pulling these cars over and checking their roadworthiness, the tyres, the chassis, the breaks and the entire construction of the car.
Of course one of the answers is to incorporate into South Africa, a test that requires a car to be regularly inspected by a registered mechanic, who would be able to look at a specific number if items on the vehicle and ascertain whether the vehicle itself was roadworthy and provide a certificate which would be stuck on the windscreen and would incur a fine if not present.
Of course, if we look at other countries where speeds are less controlled, especially Germany where the Autobahn is accessible to motor vehicles with absolutely no speed limits in the outer lanes, one needs to ask the question as to how many accidents and fatal accidents are recorded each year. Again without being an expert and without having access to detailed statistics on this particular subject; I am led to believe that there are an exceptionally low number of accidents and almost no fatal accidents on the Autobahn on an annual basis.
It is clear then in most thinking people’s minds that speed is not the problem � Speed does not kill. In fact, if everybody on the highway is driving at 150km/h and you insist on obeying the legal limit of a 120km/h, you are actually causing a problem. And like that poor springbok, it is not the high speed that will kill, but the low speed.
The real way to deal with road safety – as demonstrated in many countries around the world – appears to be to get more law enforcement officers onto the roads. This does not mean getting more potbelly officers sitting in foldaway chairs on some hidden island under a bridge behind a tree on some National road making sure that you do not exceed the speed limit by 5km/h at their particular place on the highway. Indeed in Britain the traffic officials are not allowed to put speed traps in place unless it can be proven that the location that they are testing speed is a dangerous location where speed has been the cause of accidents. Speed trapping is just too easy, and becomes a money making scheme rather than about road safety.
It was not surprising a few years ago for a leak from the traffic official’s department of the government to indicate that many traffic officials and many traffic departments had been given budgeted targets for traffic fines. It was also not surprising to discover that certain traffic departments outsourced the setting up of camera speed traps and the processing of fines to private companies who earned incentives on the number of paid up fines that were issued. But how many lives were saved?
So, what should be done? Speed can, at best, be called a contributing factor and government agencies and the law enforcement officials need to be much more creative in the development of strategies to combat the number of deaths that South Africa sees on its roads every year.
The lesson for them as it is for other businesses is that if you ask the wrong question, no matter how good the answer is, it will always be the wrong answer. Wrong questions lead to wrong answers every time. I believe that the wrong questions have been asked about road safety in South Africa and the wrong answer has been pumped over and over again with millions of rands being spent on lavish advertising campaigns to give the wrong answer to people. And these people, deep down at a subconscious level have an understanding that this is the wrong answer and the wrong issue and therefore have no emotional reason to change their behaviour. The campaign is not working, just as many companies are finding that their marketing campaigns and their customer awareness campaigns are not working either. The problem is a bad application of data, knowledge, statistics and research and asking the wrong questions and getting the wrong answers.

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