This is kind of clever:

 

Maybe I’m a sucker for this sort of thing—but it gave me a good chuckle.

Still, after thinking about it a bit, I wondered:  can a clever ad really make cyclists safer?

  • I suppose it’s possible.  Obviously, advertising has been known to change people’s behaviors and perceptions.  If it didn’t, it wouldn’t exist. 

    But if anything, the ad proves that focusing on 2 things at once is really, really hard!!  I watched the video a couple of times, and I simply couldn’t watch for the moonwalking bear and also count the basketball passes—even when I knew the bear was coming. 

    For me, then, the ad doesn’t underscore how important it is for drivers to stay alert to the unexpected.  Instead, it demonstrates almost the exact opposite: this kind of alertness is almost impossible to sustain. Presumably, staying on task, and ignoring what seems irrelevant, is a survival skill that’s been reinforced by millions of years of evolution.  When we’re engaged in something that requires a lot of our attention—like driving, or counting basketball passes—we simply ignore anything that’s not an immediate threat, or visually striking.

    To me, this suggests that merely announcing that people really ought to pay more attention to cyclists is a bit like announcing that chocolate cake isn’t the foundation for a healthy diet, or that television is kinda stupid.  Millions of years of evolution tell us that frosting is an unalloyed good, and that flashing colors and attractive faces are fun to watch.  So, evidence be damned, we load up on cake and Lost.  In the same way, drivers navigating in heavy traffic will still tend to overlook the occasional, isolated cyclist.  Nagging will only change things on the margins.

    More generally, I worry that this sort of ad reinforces an unhelpful way of thinking about big social problems:  namely, that the best solution is to convince people to make good choices.  The dominant frame here is that social change is like retail consumerism—and making the smart, thoughtful choice seem “cool” (or otherwise desirable) will carry the day.

    Color me unconvinced.  I think the cool factor, in particular, is overrated as a motivator for big behavioral changes.  Besides, for every person who thinks that watching out for bicyclists is rad, there’ll be another who thinks that drag racing is a blast. So if you really want to change behavior, making the good choices the easy ones, and bad choices the costly ones, seems much more important.  See, for example, Germany, where bike fatalities fell by 64 percent over 25 years, despite a boom biking.  How’d they do it?

    [T]he necessary techniquesand programs already exist and have been proven to work extremelywell.  They include better facilities for walking and cycling,traffic calming of residential neighborhoods, urban design sensitiveto the needs of nonmotorists, restrictions on motor vehicleuse in cities, rigorous traffic education of both motoristsand nonmotorists, and strict enforcement of traffic regulationsprotecting pedestrians and bicyclists. American cities lackonly the political will to adopt the same strategies.

    In Germany, they didn’t just run some ads; they spent money and time on the things that were proven to improve bike safety.  Perhaps most importantly, they did something that captured drivers’ attention even more than a moonwalking bear:  they made them legally liable for collisions with bikes and pedstrians:

    Even in cases where an accidentresults from illegal moves by pedestrians or cyclists, the motoristis almost always found to be at least partly at fault. Whenthe accident involves children or the elderly, the motoristis usually found to be entirely at fault. In almost every case,the police and the courts find that motorists should anticipateunsafe and illegal walking and cycling.

    In a way, this turns bicycles and pedestrians into threats—hit them, and it’ll hurt you.  That’s bound to focus a driver’s attention a lot more than a cute ad campaign ever could.

    Of course, none of this should be construed as a critique of the ad itself—just the cultural context that makes an ad campaign seem like the most effective public safety strategy.  All the carping aside, it’s a cute ad.  Let’s hope it saves some lives.