Do we need a PR campaign to make motorists belt up?

It’s a day for motoring nostalgia with the 25th anniversary of seatbelts becoming law in the UK.  After this amount of time, you might think the simple act of putting on your seatbelt had become a habit for all car drivers and passengers, but apparently nearly 4 million still need to be persuaded.

Motoring website is calling for a celebrity endorsement public information campaign (in the style of the “Clunk-Click” campaigns of the 1970s and 80s) to change the attitudes of those not wearing belts, claiming it was instrumental in ensuring 90% of motorists buckled up by the early 1990s.

I’m not convinced that such advertising-led campaigns are the answer today – the government spends many millions on campaigns to curb drink driving, smoking, benefit fraud, drugs use, etc, with little apparent impact.  In fact, my students were stunned by a report in PR Week of a government campaign to advise businesses of compliance with the smoking ban.  For a budget of £500,000, the PR campaign had apparently increased awareness from 89% to 90%.  Hardly money well spent – in fact, hardly money that needed spending at all.

An “awareness” campaign only makes sense if those not wearing their belts are unaware of the need to do so.  Of course, public relations can be used to address this lack of understanding, but it is vital to research the reasons why some people aren’t belting up.  Would they be motivated to do so simply by a celebrity today?  The death of Princess Diana, which is back in the news, is the ultimate example of the consequence of not wearing a seatbelt.

The Road Safety Minister Jim Fitzpatrick claims seatbelts have

prevented prevented an estimated 60,000 deaths and 670,000 serious injuries since 31 January 1983 when seatbelts were made mandatory for drivers and front seat passengers.

He also highlights that “93 per cent of adult front seat passengers and 94 per cent of drivers wear seatbelts. For back seat passengers, 93% of children (under 14) and 70% of adults are secured.”  

This reveals the real challenge.  When something is new and few people are doing it, a campaign can generate momentum that carries along the majority.  When most people are already complying, an awareness campaign isn’t going to reach the laggards – particularly those with ingrained non-compliance behaviour.  So it is good to see that:

the Department for Transport is undertaking a major research project into the use of and attitudes towards seatbelts and will use the findings to inform a new seatbelts campaign which will launch towards the end of 2008.

Of course, this is a two-way asymmetric campaign (theory for the PR students) in that the research is being used to change the behaviour of others.  Although it would be interesting if the recommendations involved a two-way symmetric campaign, as it is up to those not wearing belts to be convinced to change their behaviour.


  1. Ian Grey says:

    Why does the Government feel the need to ban things for other people’s own good?

  2. Ian – it seems increasingly like ‘publics’ (in the PR sense of those who are active in relation to an issue) expect government to act on their wishes, which often means banning whatever the public feel is appropriate.

    In the case of aspects such as wearing seatbetls, I suppose we could expect governments to act to protect people in areas where death or injury can be avoided. I don’t have an issue in respect of product safety (with some caveats regarding what might be considered to be reasonable) and corporate social responsibility here, but it does seem that the concept of a ban on behaviour is being extended into areas where there has to be personal responsibiility

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