City Launches a New Vision Zero Billboard Campaign — With Little Proof that Such Things Work

The new billboard above several congested lanes of traffic on Pennsylvania Avenue in East New York. Photo: Julianne Cuba
The new billboard above several congested lanes of traffic on Pennsylvania Avenue in East New York. Photo: Julianne Cuba

The signs point to failure.

Mayor Adams on Monday announced a new $4-million public education campaign, “Speeding Ruins Lives, Slow Down,” that will beg reckless drivers to stop killing their fellow New Yorkers — money that one activist called “a waste” and whose utility the Department of Transportation could not provide.

Amid a disturbing rise in traffic violence, the funds will go towards new billboard and other media buys above multi-lane roadways, at bus stops, at gas stations, and on the radio. The first billboard was unveiled Monday at the intersection of Pennsylvania Avenue and Fulton Street in East New York, a neighborhood where since 2018, 30 people, including two cyclists and 13 pedestrians, have been killed in traffic violence.

But advocates again slammed the city for doing too much of what it often does: relying too much on the good will or responsibility of drivers themselves, rather than making bigger and harder investments in redesigning streets so errors or recklessness are less possible — changes that could finally bring safety to wide, untamed roads like Seagirt Boulevard in Queens or Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn.

“This is more than a massive waste of $4 million. It is also an implicit message from the City of New York that the traffic safety crisis is a problem of bad people, not NYC DOT-designed streets that induce dangerous behavior,” said Jessie Singer, a journalist and author of, “There Are No Accidents: The Deadly Rise of Injury and Disaster — Who Profits and Who Pays the Price. “The worst part is that for $4 million you could actually redesign a few intersections, do something real, improve people’s lives, make them safer, save a life.”

The new ad campaign was also resoundingly mocked by Daily News transportation reporter Clayton Guse:

And even Adams’s supporters raised some questions. Council Member Selvena Brooks-Powers (D-Southeast Queens), who chairs the Transportation Committee, was on hand for the mayor’s announcement, but admitted that there are more effective methods to solving the rising death crisis.

“Smart street design, traffic enforcement, but most of all true infrastructure investments are the keys to decreasing this alarming trend,” said Brooks-Powers, who is a living example of the power of bad road design over positive media messaging: her car has been slapped with 17 school-zone speeding tickets in the last 11 months, Streetsblog reported last week.

Above all, the media campaign is not new. In December 2019, the de Blasio administration launched a similar multi-platform Vision Zero marketing campaign called, “Was it Worth It?” that aimed to “shift motorist behavior,” and “reduce traffic-related injuries and fatalities.”

It’s unclear how many drivers were persuaded by the signs, but citywide, speeding and crashes are up under Mayor Adams. Since that last billboard campaign began, at least 593 people have been killed in traffic crashes, including 291 motorists, 254 pedestrians, and 48 cyclists, according to city statistics.

The $4-million investment comes just days after a new study found that a public education effort in Texas in 2019  actually increased a motorists’ chance of being involved in a crash by about 4.5 percent. That study focused on “dynamic message” signs that may be even more distracting that static billboards, but the study’s co-author said drivers can be negatively distracted by the disturbing content of the warnings themselves.

“Fatality disclosures are very sobering, very salient, and uber-distracting,” Joshua Madsen, assistant professor at the Carlson School of Management, told Streetsblog USA. “Telling drivers that 2,000 people have died on the roads that year is fundamentally different than saying it’ll take you 20 minutes to get downtown under current traffic conditions. It can get you really preoccupied, and it can really draw your focus away from the task at hand.”

Madsen said roadside education campaigns should be backed by more evidence because so far the data is damning.

“Goodness gracious, its 2022; let’s analyze the data,” he said. “Let’s have DOTs actually conduct some validation and say, ‘Is this [roadside education campaign] helping, or heaven forbid, is it actually hurting?’… We need to ask ourselves: what is the right mix of messages, the right content for these messages, the right time and way to show them — or maybe even, should we just not be having messages [on roadsides] at all?”

But the city DOT could not immediately provide any statistics to prove the efficacy of such campaigns; Adams said he had not heard of the study, but promised to take a look at it.

“We’re not going to do anything that’s going to aggravate, increase the number of crashes. This is the first time I’m learning about the study,” said Adams. “But there’s other methods to communicate outside the signs, the billboards, and we are going to not leave any stone unturned to address this issue and educate the public.”

Neither the DOT or City Hall responded to follow-up requests for comment about the proven success of billboard campaigns, if any.

Advocates say education is an important piece to addressing the rise in fatal and near-fatal crashes, but that it’s just one part of the puzzle to making streets safer. What’s more crucial is the nearly $1-billion investment in the Streets Master Plan that the mayor announced just last week, and the pledge to bolster 1,000 of the city’s dangerous intersections this year with engineering improvements.

“We need to use every tool. We want every intersection redesigned. The focus is on redesigning our streets. It’s getting Vision Zero back on track,” said Danny Harris, the executive director of Transportation Alternatives.

All of that said, Adams said his $4-million ad campaign is the largest such allocation since the start of Vision Zero in 2014, said Hizzoner, who, as he often has in the past, likened the crisis on New York City’s deadly roads to gun violence.

“The metal of a bullet destroys lives and the metal of a car destroys lives. We have seen traffic violence increase dramatically in the last two years. Crashes are more frequent, speeding and reckless driving have increased,” said Adams. “People are getting hurt, families devastated and we are taking action in a real way. We are going to bring traffic violence levels down through engineering, enforcement, and education.”

The crime metaphor is particularly salient, though not in the way Adams hopes. Through April 26 this year, there have been 30,853 reported crashes, according to city stats, injuring 13,540 people, including 978 cyclists, 2,694 pedestrians and 9,868 motorists, killing 63 total. By comparison, there have been 374 shootings over roughly the same time period (two days fewer), injuring 441 people.

That means there are roughly 266 crashes every day in the city vs. three shootings every day. And 116 people are injured every day in car crashes vs. 3.8 on the average day from gun violence.

 

The new city campaign does include educational videos, too, including a new one launched on Monday. Such videos, however, are rarely watched by New Yorkers. Here are the number of views of various English-language educational videos on the city’s YouTube page:

— with Jesse Coburn

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