The propaganda deemed acceptable to show in schools

Years ago, when I was in high school, I remember that we were given numerous safety presentations. Sometimes these were about the railways (dare to step on the tracks and you WILL certainly be killed), sometimes about not flying kites near pylons and sometimes about the roads (such as the green cross code). The issue of responsibility was never discussed, interviews with children who had been maimed by cars were shown, although we were never told what happened to the motorist in the aftermath. The takeaway message from these videos was that when crossing the roads, the onus was very much on us to look out for cars and only cross when it was safe to do so. The wider issues of government-enshrined inequality between transport modes were never discussed, and the implication from the road safety propaganda we watched was that if we were hit by an adult in a car, it was our own stupid fault.

I have a little sister, who is currently in high school. In order to assess the state of “Road Safety” propaganda shown in schools nowadays, I decided to ask her what were the sort of things they showed her in school on the issue. I don’t really talk to my sister about the issues I discuss here, she is quite young, like most people she doesn’t cycle, and she doesn’t generally give much thought to the issue of transport. By being careful in how I asked about it, this presented me with an opportunity to find out what the take-home message she (and by extension the average pupil in her age group) got from the propaganda. The conversation went something like this:

Me: Do they still show you those road safety videos in school nowadays?

Sis: Well, there was this one about a boy who got paralysed when crossing the road.

Me: Oh. Did they tell you what happened to the adult in the car who hit the boy?

Sis: No. It was the boy’s fault because he was wearing dark clothes

So-called “Road safety” education programmes are generally funded by the fake road safety charities such as the Road Safety Foundation, RAC Foundation and the Road Safety Fund set-up by the AA, RAC and FIA. These education programmes have a very poor success record worldwide. Their main purpose is to counter the bad press the motoring lobby were receiving at the time they were founded due to the death-toll (particularly of children) caused by the actions of their members. It seems odd to me that this propaganda is welcomed by schools, but for example the tobacco and alcohol industries are not similarly indulged. At the very least the obvious conflict of interests should be recognised by the governments. Allowing the motoring lobby to set the agenda for how road safety is perceived by school children is a bit like allowing Anheuser-Busch InBev or British American tobacco to set the agenda for health education in schools. Perhaps all they need to do is set-up a cynical faux-charity foundation and they will be welcomed with open arms. 

The benefits afforded to the motor lobby and those whom it represents as a result of such education programmes are many. Firstly, it creates the image that the motoring lobbies care about, and are actively trying to reduce casualties. Secondly, by targeting the young and vulnerable, they are able to plant two very powerful ideas into the minds of the next generation; if a motorist hits a pedestrian (or any vulnerable road user, such as a cyclist), it is the victim who is at fault and that these activities are intrinsically dangerous compared to the perceived safety of the car.

Motorists benefit from this propaganda by the creation of a culture in which drivers are blameless for collisions involving their vehicle with more vulnerable road users. Additionally, this helps to prevent governments from reversing the creation of a road network favouring the use of the car for almost all journeys, high volumes of motor traffic and the high speeds attained by these vehicles.

The “Decade of Action on Road Safety” is a fine example of this. Fronted by Lewis Hamilton (Booked for speeding in UK, reckless driving in Australia) and Jenson Button (Booked for speeding in UK multiple times) and funded by the FIA, one of the biggest motoring lobbies and the world governing body of motorsport, it embodies our arse-about-face approach to road safety. It saddens me that an institution such as the United Nations would degrade itself by choosing to be associated with this pish. 

Those of you who have reproduced may wish to prevent your own children from being exposed to this blatant propaganda, or at least get through to them ahead of time. It might be fun for them to have an understanding of the forces at work behind the scenes of these campaigns, at least then they will be able to ask some awkward and disruptive questions in class.

6 thoughts on “The propaganda deemed acceptable to show in schools

  1. Common sense can prevail. Riding with my eldest this evening, coasting along with the wind rushing through her hair she announced "You can't beat a bike ride Dad!"Her road safety education began when we dissected a Tales of the Road propaganda pack from her old school. And was that pamphlet full of some sickness :>X

  2. Going for your first line – I would argue it's probably a good thing to tell children not to stray onto the railway as the risks aren't always as obvious as with a roadway. In certain parts of the country you're very likely to be electrocuted even if you don't step on a rail. A train moving at 180kmph covers 1 km in 20 seconds and will take a further 6~8km to come to a complete stop after it's made a carcass of you. The railway does of course have a duty of care (in this country at least) to try prevent you from putting yourself in danger by taking a quick short cut – all but the shortest railways are fenced. Controversially, I'd also argue there has to be some responsibility held by more vulnerable road user. It's all about balance of risk – some situations are inherently more risky than others. For example… if you're eejit enough to walk out between stationary taxies on Bishopsgate wearing your iPod up to notch 11, you're much more likely to be hit by a cyclist.As road users we all need to take some responsibility for our actions.

  3. Excellent article – I don't know if you're aware of the hideous literature RoSPA provide teachers for teaching 5&6 yr olds about cycling…"Draw faces on two eggs and give them names (the pupils could make suggestions).Tell the children that they are going to ride their bikes, but one doesn’t like wearing ahelmet. Ask them what would happen if he fell off his bike. Hold the egg one metreabove the floor and drop it, watching it smash."Way to encourage cycling!Also the current bill before Parliament on cycle helmets for under-14s… are people such idiots!

  4. @Kim,It is very depressing that the victim-blaming approach is so pervasive. I wonder how long untilo "Dark clothes" becomes the new "Who was not wearing a helmet."@Ian,Your lot are lucky to be given a more balanced take on the propaganda. Thankfully I was able to help my little sister to come to a more rational conclusion on her own.@grimnorth,I agree that if everyone took a bit more personal responsibility, we would have a safer and more pleasant transport network, and for the record I think that staying out of the way of trains is generally good advice. The main problem I have is when people hijack the "personal responsibility" argument in order to place a disproportionate amount of responsibility on vulnerable road users (especially children), with the sole aim of reducing their own liability, or the liability of interest groups they represent. After all, if an adult in a car hits a kid dressed all in black, it is still the adults fault for not driving in a manner appropriate for the prevailing conditions. Suggesting to a child that they might be better off dressing more brightly because of the risk posed to them by irresponsible adults driving cars is depressing, but it is better to make sure that they understand the message as that, rather than as "if you dress in dark clothes and get run over, it's your fault."@crapbournemouthcyclist,The teaching of "cycle safety" in schools is particularly dire, children and teachers are encouraged to abandon all logic and scientific rigour in favour of a curriculum which is based more on faith and superstition than reality. If they're going to teach kids about helmets in such a manner, it should at least be in RE with all the other fairy tales and such.

  5. Have you considered that the reason pedestrians and cyclists are occasionally held responsiblr for lapses I’m concentration is that they are traveling at a slower speed, and therefore have a better chance of making a split decision?

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