Millions of dollars are spent annually on road safety campaigns. The television ads, in particular, indicate a high level of innovation in trying to cut through the crisis of complacency in the way we drive. But for all that innovation, the creators of these ads really don't know what works in changing driver behaviour.
There is common consensus among experts in the field of road safety that the best road safety campaigns are based on research driven, psycho-social theories of behaviour.
There are behaviour change theories, theories of social persuasion and fear-based campaigns, but it is difficult to find reports of evaluations of road safety campaigns that indicate that lives or injuries have been saved as an outcome of the campaign.
This is a difficult call because of the way that road crashes happen and the difficulty in capturing what was going through the minds of those involved before the crash.
If you translated the road safety spend into a commercial environment it would be easy to relate the marketing spend to the outcome produced.
In another life I managed the retail operations of a Northland stock and station company. We would have campaigns several times a year planned well in advance. They were highly focused, motivating and time framed.
The Northland team gathered at the start of the week for breakfast. We presented the whole promotion package deal with newspaper, radio, window displays, handouts and incentives in place. Targets were agreed, product was taken away and the week became an exciting all-in affair with measurable outcomes and well-rewarded social clubs.
But road safety isn't a product you can turn on and off and peddle in a week by week fashion - and finding evidence of well-planned evaluated campaigns in New Zealand is pretty challenging.
One such campaign, though, is the evaluation of the national "Safer Summer" campaign by NZ Police in December 2013 and January 2014. The campaign focused on reducing speed and introduced a reduced speed enforcement tolerance (10km/h to 4km/h) and increased traffic enforcement over the two months. It included a media launch, speed-related adverts and extensive coverage in print, online and social media.
The results were a significant 36 per cent reduction in vehicles exceeding the speed limit by 1-10km/h alongside a very significant 45 per cent reduction in speeding in excess of 10km/h.
It is difficult to directly assign these numbers to reduced crashes but there were 22 per cent fewer fatals and 8 per cent fewer serious injury crashes compared to the same period the previous year.
The campaign was repeated the next year with independent research looking for public opinion about the campaign. The research found that 62 per cent of New Zealand road users made a positive change in their driving behaviour, 64 per cent understood what the campaign was about, and mostroad users supported ticketing drivers exceeding the posted speed limit.
In almost every respect this well publicised and evaluated campaign could be deemed successful with speeds reducing and the public generally approving of the approach.
Speed limit tolerance has always been a police discretion. Officially the speed limit is the limit and speed is speed - you will be ticketed beyond that speed limit. The discretion has been there to ensure the real speeders, beyond 110km/h on the open road were ticketed.
Your speedometer reads about 5km/h over the speed you are travelling and the discretion allows for tyre size variations and the unlikely possibility that the radar was faulty.
But last Friday afternoon, as Aucklanders were preparing to break out and fine weather beckoned, the police announced that the tolerance would be scrapped and "we will enforce the speed limit". After all, the campaign says, reduced speed saves lives and it is generally accepted by the driving public.
Well, Monday's talkback lit up, a petition was started, road safety campaigners labelled the approach "petty, vindictive and ineffective" and the "cynical revenue gathering" comment circulated.
It's a bit of a shame that there wasn't some campaign thinking behind the announcement.
The police need to take the motoring public with them when making changes in policy such as zero tolerance beyond the speed limit, all year round.
• John Williamson is chairman of Roadsafe Northland and Northland Road Safety Trust, a former national councillor for NZ Automobile Association and former Whangārei District Council member.