Depictions of dangerous speeds in auto ads undermine progress on safety

March 27, 2024

Chuck Farmer

By Chuck Farmer
Vice President, Research and Statistical Services, IIHS

A sleek, silver sedan races through the aisles of a shipping container storage yard, pursued by a menacing motorcycle. The sedan windows are tinted just enough that you can imagine yourself as the driver. The motorcycle is gaining ground, so you turn down an aisle currently being worked by a crane. As you blow past the crane, it lowers a shipping container, blocking the motorcycle. You’re safe. Or are you?

Scene change. A young, good-looking couple take off their virtual reality headsets, revealing that the chase is just part of their game. However, the sleek, silver sedan is real, it’s turbocharged, and it’s available from your local car dealer. You should take it for a test drive.

Each year in the U.S., more than 300,000 people are injured and more than 12,000 die in speed-related car crashes. These crashes occur at all hours, on all types of roads and involve all types of drivers. The simple fact is, no matter how skilled the driver, speed affects both the likelihood of a crash and the severity of crash injuries. High speeds leave a driver less time to react, less room to brake and less chance of surviving the force of a potential crash. Why are we promoting car sales by glorifying speed?

This type of message is not a new phenomenon. An IIHS analysis of television advertising in 1998 found that performance (i.e., speed, power and maneuverability) was a theme in half of all automobile ads. Performance was the primary theme in 17% of the ads. A more recent analysis by Consumer Reports presented a similar result. Performance was a theme in 40% of automobile ads in 2017.

Perhaps these ads are just harmless fun. One might suppose that the viewer is aware enough to separate fantasy from reality, and we all know that speeding is dangerous. We’re all above-average drivers. We would never try to imitate the extreme stunt driving seen in the ads. But might we be tempted to push the boundaries of speed just a bit?

Research in various fields has shown that the content of electronic media affects viewer behavior. Most of the research focuses on the effects of violent content on children and adolescents. But there also is evidence that adult attitudes and behavior can be affected by persuasive messages. Peer pressure is not always obvious, and it’s not just for children.

A few years ago, we saw an upsurge in risky driving behavior such as speeding, driving after drinking and failing to wear seatbelts. One theory about this increased antisocial behavior says it was due to the isolation experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic. But the behavior has continued, along with severe crashes. Many U.S. cities have lately experienced a sizeable increase in deaths to pedestrians and other vulnerable road users. They have responded with traffic-calming strategies such as lane narrowing, speed humps, and lower speed limits. Ads encouraging drivers to go fast run counter to these efforts. How can we change driver behavior when we’re giving conflicting messages?

The content of automobile ads is essentially self-regulated in the U.S. As part of its mission to “protect consumers and promote competition,” the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) enforces truth-in-advertising laws. But these laws don’t say anything about the promotion of unsafe driving. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) requires broadcasters to “operate in the public interest,” but again there is no specific mention of depictions of unsafe driving. There are, however, restrictions on ads promoting some other unsafe behaviors. Federal law prohibits advertising of tobacco products on any electronic medium under FCC jurisdiction. And for many years there have been voluntary restrictions on ads for alcoholic beverages.

Broadcasters formulate their own standards, although often they’re open to interpretation. For example, the ViacomCBS Advertising Standards prohibit “risky behavior portrayed positively,” with no definition of risky behavior. The standards at ABC go a bit further, stating that “safe and lawful driving practices should be depicted at all times.” They point to wearing seatbelts and avoiding distractions as examples of safe driving, but there is no mention of speed. NBCUniversal requires that advertisers “portray compliance with standard safety precautions.” Again, seatbelts are mentioned, but not speed. Is safe speed not a standard safety precaution?

Of course, the automakers themselves bear responsibility for their advertising content. Some choose to glorify speed to sell vehicles, even as they also tout the safety of their products and conduct safe-driving campaigns. Most vehicle manufacturers include a commitment to safety as part of their mission. When it comes to vehicle design and the adoption of safety technology, they have followed through. Year after year, these companies compete for IIHS TOP SAFETY PICK awards, continually making improvements to their vehicles as we strengthen the criteria for the accolades.

Many automakers also sponsor programs to encourage safe driving for teens. Ford, for example, works with the Governors Highway Safety Association to offer Driving Skills for Life, a program of hands-on safety training for young drivers. General Motors and the National Safety Council have partnered on the DriveitHOME safety training program for teen drivers. We know that teens are especially susceptible to the urge to speed, so how can companies justify ads that feed that impulse?

The roadway is a shared environment. Drivers are required to be aware of and respectful toward other road users. It’s part of the driver licensing contract. In the days before posted speed limits, drivers were expected to be “reasonable and prudent” in their choices of speed, and some state laws still contain that language. There is no such thing as a right to speed.

Advertisers must treat unsafe speed the same way they would treat drunk driving or failure to use a seat belt — behaviors they wouldn’t think of showing in a positive light. The thrill of moving at extreme speeds should be confined to amusement parks and virtual reality games. Today’s vehicles are more reliable, more efficient, more comfortable and safer than ever before. Shouldn’t that be enough of a selling point?

End of main content