Northern Irish road safety campaigns focus on shock value

The evidence shows the hard-hitting TV ads have succeeded in reducing fatalities

An image from a Northern Irish road safety campaign. Photograph: Robbie Reynolds

An image from a Northern Irish road safety campaign. Photograph: Robbie Reynolds


Those charged with reducing the number of deaths and serious injuries on Northern Ireland’s roads subscribe to the value of shock impact – to such an extent that some road safety advertising is banned from use on television before the 9pm watershed.

The advertisements hit just as hard as the terrible crashes regularly portrayed in the road safety campaigns run previously by the North’s Department of Environment and now by the Department for Infrastructure.

Probably the most graphic was one which appeared two years ago. It depicts a young driver speeding on a rural road.

He loses control of the car, flipping over into a field on top of a group of young children out enjoying a school picnic.

The minute-long advert reflected how since 2000 the equivalent of a classroom of 28 children had been killed in road accidents.

The powerful, dramatic nature of the road safety video prompted more than 2.5 million YouTube hits and coverage all over the world, often preceded by warnings that what viewers were about to see might upset them.

It and other road safety ads were banned in Northern Ireland from being televised before 9pm so as not to upset children.

Some thought them excessively melodramatic but there was no doubt that they hit home.

Over the years the ads have featured portrayals of harrowing family situations where young children are killed in road smashes by drink drivers, of teenagers lying dead on mortuary slabs to be identified by grieving parents, or a teen sitting depressed and paralysed in a wheelchair after an accident.

The more recent ads warn of the deadly dangers of people being distracted while driving – “the car is not the place to socialise” – and how paying attention to smartphones rather than to the road ahead can have fatal consequences.

The road safety people have worked on the principle that showing children in such situations is one of the few effective means of persuading drivers – particularly younger drivers – to slow down and obey the rules of the road.


Some people have found such campaigns disturbing and offensive. But neither the Sinn Féin Minister for Infrastructure Chris Hazzard nor his road safety officials, who have co-operated with their counterparts in the South in a number of campaigns, are inclined to tame down the explicit nature of these ads.

They cite a study by the Oxford Economics forcasting and analysis organisation which calculated that from 1995-2011 “21,977 men, women and children in Northern Ireland have been saved from death and serious injury on our roads through the impact and influence of our campaigns”.

And the evidence is that ultra-realistic advertising does play an important part in reducing road deaths and serious injuries.

Road fatalities have been recorded since 1931 in Northern Ireland and since then 14,839 people lost their lives on the North’s roads.

That year there were 114 road deaths, with the number increasing over the years, peaking in 1972 with 372 deaths.

Thereafter there was a gradual reduction in fatalities during the 1970s and 1980s before a levelling off at an average of around 155 deaths per year during the 1990s.

Fatalities dropped from 171 in 2000 to 115 in 2009. But thereafter, and this would coincide with some of the very graphic campaigns, the number of deaths dropped considerably.

Before 2010 the number always exceeded 100 but since then it has been below 100.

In 2010 there were 55 road fatalities, with the lowest number – 48 – recorded in 2012. In 2014 and 2015 the number increased to 79 and 74 deaths respectively.

At the time of writing, 59 people had died this year on Northern Ireland roads compared to 62 at the same time last year and 73 at the same period in 2014.

Infrastructure Minister Mr Hazzard has said “the vast majority of people living in the North of Ireland believe that the ‘tell it as it is’ nature of our material is essential if we are to address the poor road user behaviours which cause most casualties on our roads”.

He said attitudes and behaviours are extremely difficult to change but that graphic images “deliver a sudden, intense, and – yes – shocking impact to countless road users here”.

He referred to a 2014 survey that found that 92 per cent agreed that such television ads were important for saving lives, with 70 per cent strongly agreeing.

“This is an area of the department’s work about which there are some very strong positive and negative opinions but, clearly, we would not wish to stop doing things that are working and are saving lives,” said Mr Hazzard.