“34 Killed by…”: The Queensland Government’s New Road Safety Billboard Campaign

Jarren Nylund
10 min readSep 20, 2023


A Social Psychological Analysis of a Set of Billboards from the Campaign

A Queensland Government billboard displaying the text: “34 killed by speeding on the Sunshine Coast 2017–2022.”
IMAGE (ABOVE): An example from the set of billboard designs discussed in situ.

Internationally, Australia has held a positive reputation since the 1970s for its road safety record (Stevenson & Thompson, 2014). But despite this previous success, there have been 1,234 road deaths in Australia in the past year alone, an increase of 8.4% from the previous year (BITRE, 2023). And from 2013 to 2018, severe but not always fatal road injuries in Australia increased by 16.2% (BITRE, 2022). In 2022, road fatalities in the state of Queensland were 17% higher than the previous five-year average, prompting the delivery of a new road safety billboard campaign by the Queensland Government (Bailey, 2023). The campaign has been designed to target high-risk driving behaviours — such as speeding — while they are relevant (i.e., when people are driving), and tailored to their geographic audience. For example, one set of billboards from the campaign features the number of people killed by speeding or drink driving in various geographic regions between 2017 and 2022. These details are then updated to be relevant for the specific locations where the billboards are situated. The following article will critique this set of billboards using insights from social psychology and provide recommendations for how they could be improved.

“…this information is intended to act as a cue to increase their desire for self-control to override any urge they may have to engage in an anti-social behaviour such as speeding.”

Analysis & Critique

The set of billboards described above are designed to target drivers who may engage in high-risk driving behaviours such as speeding or drink driving. The billboards aim to do this by providing road death statistics (e.g., “34 killed by speeding…”) to increase the drivers’ inhibition to engage in these behaviours by increasing their perception of risk (i.e., making salient the number of people who have died from engaging in that behaviour). This is consistent with Slotter and Finkel’s (2011) I-cubed theory in the sense that this information is intended to act as a cue to increase their desire for self-control to override any urge they may have to engage in an anti-social behaviour such as speeding.

The billboards also aim to evoke a sense of shared social identity between drivers and the victims, to increase the chance that drivers will care about the victims, by making the geographic location salient (e.g., “…on the Sunshine Coast…”). That is, that the victims are a part of the same ingroup as the driver because of their shared social identity of residing in that geographic location. This is consistent with social identity theory which proposes that people gain a sense of their identity through the social groups that they belong to (Tajfel, 1981). It is also consistent with research which demonstrates that we are more pro-social towards those with shared social identities (especially those in our families and geographic regions; Chapman et al., 2020), and that this pro-social behaviour towards ingroup members is psychologically rewarding (Molenberghs et al., 2014).

A Queensland Government billboard displaying the text: “34 killed by speeding on the Sunshine Coast 2017–2022.”
IMAGE (ABOVE): An example from the set of billboard designs discussed.

Another aspect of having a shared social identity with others is that people become aware of what most others do or approve of in that social group (Cialdini et al., 2006). These are called social norms, and there are two forms relevant for this analysis: descriptive and injunctive norms. Descriptive norms refer to what people in that social group typically do, whereas injunctive norms refer to what people in that social group typically approve or disapprove of. By mentioning the number of deaths that speeding or drink driving has caused, these billboards seek to establish an implied injunctive norm that engaging in these behaviours is not acceptable. This is consistent with research which demonstrates that the use of injunctive norms is effective in influencing behaviour to align with that norm (Cialdini et al., 1990; 2006).

However, the billboard’s use of a relatively high number of deaths from engaging in that behaviour is likely to also be perceived as an implied descriptive norm, since the behaviour would likely need to be at least somewhat common for a relatively high number of deaths to have resulted from people engaging in it. Unfortunately, research demonstrates that perceiving an anti-social behaviour to be normal increases the likelihood that a person will engage in it (e.g., Ganz et al., 2020). Furthermore, using conflicting descriptive and injunctive norms together reduces engagement in the desired pro-social behaviour change (Cialdini, 1996; Cialdini et al., 1990). And the fact that the billboard uses conflicting implied injunctive and descriptive norms suggests that these billboards may have a backfire effect in the way that people could become more likely to engage in speeding or drink driving after seeing them.

“…a body of research has demonstrated that people are more motivated to help a single identifiable victim than they are to help when presented with multiple victims (Kogut & Ritov, 2005), or the statistics of victims (Small et al., 2007).”

Another weakness of this set of billboards is that they rely on providing the statistics of victims, and this is unlikely to be an effective means of motivating the audience. This is because a body of research has demonstrated that people are more motivated to help a single identifiable victim than they are to help when presented with multiple victims (Kogut & Ritov, 2005), or the statistics of victims (Small et al., 2007). In the billboard design, there are eight people — which have had their faces pixelated to disidentify them — used to symbolise the victims of the provided road death statistics. But even though the identified victim effect suggests that people are likely be more motivated to help when information about a single victim is presented, in this case, there are several reasons why the Queensland Government may not wish to do this. The first, and most obvious, is that it would almost certainly be considered inappropriate by grieving family members and the broader community, given that the victims would be expected to have had strong social bonds with many of those in the local community where the billboard is located.

A second reason is that providing information about road deaths would be considered aversive and at least somewhat distressful by most people. And this uncomfortable state would plausibly be in part due to the cognitive dissonance created when one’s behaviour is inconsistent with their self-image (Dovidio, 1984; Piliavin et al., 1981). The theory behind this kind of billboard design is that if the viewers consider themselves safe drivers, then they should be motivated to reduce the dissonance created by seeing distressing road death statistics by driving more safely. The challenge with this communication style is that when faced with an aversive stimulus like this, individuals possess alternative response options beyond mere compliance with the intended behaviour modification. For example, they are more likely to engage in victim blaming by thinking something like “the victims must have been bad drivers to have allowed themselves to get into an accident” (e.g., Sullivan et al., 2016). And this would be made worse by the optimistic bias that people possess in their risk assessment of negative events happening to themselves, making it unlikely that they would think that the same thing could happen to them (Gouveia & Clarke, 2001). Another likely strategy to avoid the dissonance created by seeing the billboard would be to simply avoid the communication by looking away (e.g., Batson et al., 1981; Kim & Kou, 2014), which seems rather probable in the context of the billboard being roadside where limited time can typically be taken to view the communication.

“…instead of using conflicting injunctive and descriptive norms — like in its current form — these should be brought into alignment.”


Given these problems, one might ask what could be done to address them and make the billboard more effective? One approach could involve leveraging the billboard design’s strengths, such as its ability to evoke social identity and norms. But, instead of using conflicting injunctive and descriptive norms — like in its current form — these should be brought into alignment. This could be done by creating a primary message like “the Sunshine Coast drives safely”. Doing so would still evoke their shared social identity (i.e., “the Sunshine Coast”), but signal to drivers that safe driving is both what is done by the social group (i.e., descriptive norm), and what is expected of them (i.e., injunctive norm).

IMAGE (ABOVE): A mock-up of the recommended improvements to the set of billboard designs discussed.

Another way of making the billboard more effective would be to simply remove the visual and textual cues which refer to victims and replace them with something that is known to work in reducing anti-social behaviour. For example, Walsh (1978) has identified benefit, low risk, and opportunity, as being three factors that make an anti-social behaviour such as shoplifting more likely to occur. These factors are illustrated in the theft triangle below (Hayes, 1999).

IMAGE (ABOVE): The theft triangle (Hayes, 1999).

These three factors relate to an unsafe driving behaviour such as speeding in the way that the perceived benefit could be arriving at their destination faster, and opportunity is present in the form of a driver only needing to press slightly harder on the accelerator pedal. Low perceptions of risk would arise in situations where there are no foreseen consequences for taking this action, such as when there are no police seen who could issue them a speeding fine. This means that adding a line like “because they know the consequences” onto the billboard design — in combination with an image of police using a speed camera — is likely to increase their perception of risk and reduce the likelihood that they engage in the behaviour. This would be consistent with research which has demonstrated that people are more likely to be pro-social when they can be seen (Alpízar & Martinsson, 2013), and that this even occurs in contexts where the “seeing” is simply an abstract environmental cue, such as a picture of eyes (Ernest-Jones et al., 2011). This suggests that even a photo of a speed camera should be enough to prompt the same kind of effect, increasing the likelihood that people will drive more slowly and safely in response to seeing it.

In conclusion, the set of billboards discussed from the Queensland Government’s new road safety campaign exhibit notable problems that could potentially undermine their effectiveness in promoting change towards safer driving behaviours. If these problems were addressed using insights from social psychology — like in the recommendations made — they could significantly enhance the impact of the communications and contribute towards lowering future road fatalities in Queensland.


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Jarren Nylund

🎓 PhD Student (Social / Environmental Psychology) | 📊 Research Assistant | 🌏 Climate Reality Leader | 🔗 https://bio.site/jarrennylund