Stephen McGinty: Safety advert took a bad turn

Former Formula 1 driver David Coulthard was the big name to front the road safety advert
Former Formula 1 driver David Coulthard was the big name to front the road safety advert
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The campaign to prevent road deaths is of deep importance, but in attempting to achieve that noble aim, the public was deceived and, for that, there is absolutely no excuse, writes Stephen McGinty

ANYONE who has found the car in which they were driving tipped on its side in a manner which necessitates heaving open the passenger door as one does the hatch of a tank in order to exit is likely to be aware of the dangers of country roads.

My own experience took place shortly after midnight on 1 January, 1999 when I hit a particularly perilous patch of black ice on a loch-side road outside Inverness.

The tow truck driver that eventually arrived insisted I was lucky and when I politely disagreed on the grounds that no-one sober likes to begin a New Year at a 90-degree angle he said previous drivers had skidded off the road, through the trees and into the icy waters. I took his point.

The country roads of Scotland can be treacherous enough to the cautious and even more so for those with their foot on the accelerator. Despite the fact that fatalities are down 11 per cent, in 2011 there was still 1,051 deaths and serious casualties on Scotland’s rural roads, so we should probably all welcome the innovative new advert from Road Safety Scotland. Except I don’t.

The advert, which can be viewed on YouTube, and most evenings during the current campaign, begins with an electronic police sign declaring: “Road Closed.” We then see David Coulthard sitting behind the wheel of an ordinary domestic car and behind him stand two police officers, two parked police cars and a Scottish ambulance.

David Coulthard then says: “A guy was involved in a fatal crash on this road. With police help we have set up a reconstruction that I am going to try and follow.”

The former Formula 1 driver then sets off cautiously trailing behind a shadowy “ghost car” that is recklessly driving ahead and on whose manoeuvres Coulthard keeps a running commentary.

“He should have taken his foot off the pedal here. The suspension is light and he could have lost it.”

“The camber here pushed him away from the corner. He was lucky there was no-one coming the other way.”

The “ghost car” skids on an oily slick: “Wow, pay attention, the conditions nearly caught him out there.”

The “ghost car” then speeds round a tight corner, skids off the road and rolls over into a field: “Wow… I wouldn’t even try that. The guy had no chance going at that speed.”

Coulthard is then seen out of the car and standing by the side of the road looking at the wreckage of the “ghost car”.

A black screen then flashes up with the words: “Even the best drivers in the world adjust their speed on country roads.”

In many ways it is a great advert, innovative in style, gripping and fronted by a figure held in genuine respect by the key target audience: men aged between 22 to 40. The only problem with it is that it is factually incorrect.

The first two sentences uttered by David Coulthard: “A guy was involved in a fatal crash on this road. With police help we have set up a reconstruction that I am going to try and follow” are untrue. The advert is not based on the death of a specific Scots driver, the “he” to which Coulthard repeatedly refers does not exist and so, it follows, if there was no specific fatal accident there can be no reconstruction of it.

What I’ve since discovered this week is that the advert was designed to reflect the key causes of countryside accidents with elements taken from a number of accidents including fatalities from across Scotland.

As I understand it, Road Safety Scotland and the advertising agency were anxious to achieve an advert with impact and one that was highly dramatic. The problem was that if they did, actually, reconstruct the death of a Scots driver it could be viewed as deeply insensitive to the family of the deceased. When I first saw the advert I remember thinking: “I wonder how it feels to see David Coulthard tell the world that your dead brother, husband or son was a chump?” I thought, perhaps, that they had persuaded the family of the public good that such an advertising campaign might have and, if so, perhaps they would be available for an interview. It was only when our transport correspondent, Alastair Dalton, checked it out that the murkier truth emerged.

The statement he received from the PR agency handling publicity for the campaign read: “The country roads ad is based on a reconstruction of hazards commonly found on country roads which can become serious or even fatal if approached at an inappropriate speed.

“The road chosen for the ad contains many of the country road conditions commonly found across Scotland.

“The road hasn’t been named and the reconstruction isn’t of one particular incident so as not to cause undue distress to victims’ families or local residents. However, this particular stretch of road has borne witness to fatal road accidents in the past.”

Later, when I spoke to Neil Greig, of the Institute of Advanced Motorists, who, as a board member of Road Safety Scotland was involved in the campaign, he concurred that the point of the advert was to hoodwink the public into believing that it was based on a real accident, but that any sleight of hand was for greater good. As he added: “We want people to think it was based on a real accident.”

The question that troubled me was whether or not an advert can take such liberties with the truth even if its goal is as noble as saving young drivers from an early death.

According to the Advertising Standards Agency, all adverts must abide by a key point which is: “All ads should be prepared in a way that is truthful and not likely to mislead.”

I would argue that one of the points of the new road safety campaign was indeed to mislead, and the issue becomes a little stickier when it turns out that the agency which cleared the advert for broadcast, Comcast, states that they were told that it was based on the reconstruction of a single crash.

A spokesman said: “It was our understanding that the ad was indeed based on just one crash rather than a series of them. However, in a public service ad of this sort, which is trying to get across a serious message to save lives, some degree of creative licence can be permitted, provided it doesn’t materially mislead as to the message being put across.”

However, I would argue that it is inadvisable for the Scottish Government and Road Safety Scotland to base a campaign around something that is untrue, namely that a fatal accident involving a man on a specific country road was reconstructed.

If a government-backed campaign states something as fact, it should be true and I think it is unfair to ask a reputable figure such as David Coulthard who one imagines devoted his time for free to utter lines that are not factually correct.

I think its also an issue of concern for the police, who, according to the advert, assisted in the reconstruction of this fictitious crash. Credibility is of paramount importance to the force and such fudges can have unfortunate consequences. A few months ago, Strathclyde Police held a press conference in which they displayed cars and gave the impression that they had been confiscated from drug dealers, only for it to be revealed that they had, in fact, been borrowed from a car dealer’s forecourt.

Am I being unfair or pedantic, ignoring the effectiveness of the woods, to concentrate on one rotten tree? There are those who would say “yes”, that what does it matter if the advert is not based on a specific fatal accident on a specific road but an amalgamation of twisted steel carted off from all across Scotland; surely what matters is the outcome and reducing the number of deaths on our country roads.

But my concern is that particularly in matters of public safety people are looking for ways not to change their behaviour, they are looking for an error in the argument and by asking them to believe something that didn’t happen, the government have left a loose thread which will now begin to unravel.

Don’t get me wrong: I quite understand the sensitivities that led them to not base the advert on a real accident – I just don’t think they should then pretend that they did. Facts shouldn’t be crushed beneath the wheels of even a great advert.