The Role of Fear Appeals in Improving Driver Safety: A Review of the Effectiveness of Fear-Arousing (Threat) Appeals in Road Safety Advertising

By Lewis, Ioni; Watson, Barry et al. | The International Journal of Behavioral Consultation and Therapy, Summer 2007 | Go to article overview

The Role of Fear Appeals in Improving Driver Safety: A Review of the Effectiveness of Fear-Arousing (Threat) Appeals in Road Safety Advertising


Lewis, Ioni, Watson, Barry, Tay, Richard, White, Katherine M., The International Journal of Behavioral Consultation and Therapy


Abstract

This paper reviews theoretical and empirical evidence relating to the effectiveness of fear (threat) appeals in improving driver safety. The results of the review highlight the mixed and inconsistent findings that have been reported in the literature. While fear arousal appears important for attracting attention, its contribution to behaviour change appears less critical than other factors, such as perceptions of vulnerability and effective coping strategies. Furthermore, threatening appeals targeting young males (a high-risk group of concern) have traditionally relied on the portrayal of physical harm. However, the available evidence questions the relevance, and hence effectiveness, of strong physical threats with this group. Consequently, further research is required to determine the optimum way to utilise fear in road safety advertising, as well as the type of threat(s) most effective with different road users.

Keywords: Road safety advertising; fear appeals; driver safety.

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Risky driver behaviours such as speeding and drink driving continue to represent significant contributors to road trauma, reflecting the perennial involvement of road user behaviour in road traffic injury. Whilst there is a growing body of evidence that traffic law enforcement programs, such as random breath testing and speed cameras, are effective in reducing illegal high-risk behaviours (e.g., Cameron, Cavallo & Gilbert, 1992; Homel, 1988), mass media advertising plays an important role in addressing these behaviours. Firstly, mass media advertising can be used to maximise the deterrent effects achieved by enforcement programs by heightening the driving public's perceived risk of apprehension (Elliott, 1992; Homel, 1988). Secondly, mass media advertising can work independently to educate and persuade road users to adopt safer behaviour(s) and related lifestyles. Consequently, ensuring that advertising approaches are achieving their persuasive goals is paramount.

Of the approaches utilised in road safety publicity campaigns, shock tactics, which aim to evoke strong fear responses in individuals, feature prominently (Tay & Watson, 2002; Tay, 1999). These shock-based, 'fear appeals' or more accurately, fear-arousing threat appeals (1) present individuals with the negative outcomes that they may experience as a result of engaging in the depicted unsafe and/or illegal behaviours. It is expected that the threat will evoke fear at the prospect of experiencing the aversive outcomes, which will in turn motivate the audience to align their attitudes and/or behaviours with those recommended in the message (Maddux & Rogers, 1983; Witte, 1992). Of the health issues that have utilised threat appeals, road safety is particularly renowned for its use of physical threats in which drivers and passengers are often shown to be injured and killed as a result of unsafe and/or illegal behaviour (Donovan & Henley, 1997; Rotfeld, 1999; Tay 2005a). Typically, these advertisements, in a graphically explicit manner, portray the crash scene and victims (Dejong & Atkin, 1995).

Despite their widespread use, the use of threat appeals (particularly those that invoke high levels of fear) in road safety remains contentious. For instance, some behavioural scientists as well as health promotion professionals and practitioners advocate the view that it may be best to avoid threat appeals or at the very least to use them with great caution (see Elliott, 2003; Elliott, 2005; Job, 1988; Shanahan, Elliott, & Dahlgren, 2000). Proponents of this view often cite the many inconsistent and mixed findings in the literature as well as the ethical concerns associated with deliberately evoking fear and anxiety in the attempt to persuade as justification of their position (Hastings, Stead, & Webb, 2004; Hyman & Tansey, 1990). In contrast, others have argued that under the correct circumstances the use of fear-arousing communications can be very effective (see Elliott, 2003; Witte & Allen, 2000). …

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