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Storytelling In The News: #102

Road safety program launched without compelling story

March 28, 2004

In an earlier page, on March 15, 2004, it was noted here that in rational terms, road traffic deaths in the US represent a much greater threat to human life than other man-made causes such as terrorism. However, without a compelling narrative, any effort to do something about this massive problem would be unlikely to succeed.

New road safety program announced

On March 28, it was announced that the US Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta is attempting exactly that. He is pushing an ambitious plan to cut the rate of traffic deaths by a third over the next four years, yet without any compelling story.

The program is completely reasonable: if successful, the program could save as many as 13,000 lives a year. There were 42,815 traffic fatalities in 2002, the latest year figures are available.

The emphasis on safety comes as annual traffic deaths are up since 1992 — a reversal of the steady downward trend during the 1970s and 1980s.

Mineta goes on about goals and plans in a fully rational fashion. "In the past, we have talked about safety being the number one priority," Mineta says. "Now we have a very specific goal we are trying to attain."

"It's a very difficult goal to meet," says Judith Lee Stone of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, a lobby group for insurers, health companies and consumer groups. "But you can't fault the secretary," she says. "You set goals and try and do it and just chip away."

Mineta wants to reduce the fatality rate from 1.51 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled within four years to 1.0 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles.

Achieving that fatality rate, even as the number of miles driven continues to climb, would mean 30,000 deaths in 2008 — nearly 13,000 fewer than in 2002 and the lowest number of annual deaths since records have been kept.

The major focus will be on three areas:

* Seat belts. Mineta wants to increase the use of seat belts to 90% from the current 79% through stricter laws. That could save 3,200 lives a year, according to the Department of Transportation.

* Drunken driving. Nearly a third of all alcohol-related deaths involve repeat drunken drivers or drivers with blood-alcohol levels that are at least twice the legal limit. Mineta wants courts to impose jail sentences or force treatment for "hard-core" drunken drivers. That could save up to 7,000 lives a year, according to the Department of Transportation.

* Truckers. Regulations implemented in January limit the hours truckers can spend driving. For example, long-haul truckers can be on duty 11 hours, but only after being off duty for 10 hours. It was the first change in 60 years in how many hours truckers can be on the job at one time.

Is the program broad enough?

No one opposes the idea of improving safety, but many highway officials and safety advocates question whether the goal is attainable and whether the focus is on the real causes.

Jonathan Adkins of the Governors Highway Safety Association says the effort needs to be broader than "belts and booze." Speeding, aggressive driving and other problems should be included. "If you put a seat belt on some maniac doing 100 miles an hour, he won't survive a crash," Adkins says.

Most of the safety initiatives require the cooperation of local authorities: legislators to enact tougher laws, courts to enforce them and transportation officials to develop educational programs.

Clearly a broader set of measures would be more likely to succeed if it could be implemented. But that's a big "if". The deeper problem is that neither a narrow program or a broader program is likely to be implemented with much vigor unless there is a compelling narrative or narratives that would get people moving. Reason by itself won't get the job done.

The need for a springboard story

Unfortunately Mineta's rational approach to getting change is highly unlikely to work. People will look at the goals and the reasons and go on doing what they are already doing -- and the high level of road deaths will continue. There will be no energy, no dynamism, no excitement that the program can actually succeed -- and ought to succeed.

What is needed is a story that will spring people into a realization that they can and should do something about the high level of deaths. The need is to find a story or stories that reflect efforts -- somewhere -- to address the problem that have already been successful, showing that the problem can be dealt with. It would be preferable if the story could be about a success case in the US. But if this example isn't available, then the success story in the closest analogous situation to the US should be chosen. Sweden is one possible example that might be used, as outlined in the earlier page.

Bottom line

The rational arguments that Secretary Mineta is using to launch his program may all be sound and valid. The problem is that arguments merely lead to more arguments, not action. When significant changes in behavior are needed, reason by itself leaves people passive. It doesn't 't lead to action. In order to get action, you need -- a compelling narrative.

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