In a rare reversal last August, General Motors Corp. succumbed to interest group pressure and pulled a TV commercial in the U.S. depicting an underage driver's high-speed fantasy behind the wheel of a new Chevrolet Corvette.
GM's second thoughts may be a harbinger of things to come for the industry.
Jeffrey Runge, the nation's chief vehicle safety official, said car makers need to rethink their pervasive emphasis on speed in marketing their products. ``When you look at advertising right now, it's all speed and performance,'' said Mr. Runge, administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) since August 2001.
An interest group that represents top state highway safety officials is urging Mr. Runge to use his bully pulpit to take on speed in vehicle advertising.
But Mr. Runge said he is hesitant to do so, because ``I frankly don't know what the effect'' of such commercials is on driving behavior. Some ``over-the-top'' commercials seem more amusing than influential, he said. He cited a spot in which an advertised vehicle blows the doors off neighbors' vehicles, flies through the air and lands in a swimming pool.
``Actually, it's very funny,'' Mr. Runge said.
Mr. Runge asserted that auto makers have a responsibility to research the influence of their commercials. They should devote marketing dollars to anti-speeding messages, he added.
``I hope they are paying attention to its effect, particularly on young drivers,'' Mr. Runge said. ``They kill themselves with speed.''
Young motorists are involved in a disproportionate number of nighttime, run-off-the-road crashes, sometimes after drinking alcohol, Mr. Runge said.
``I would hope in the future they (auto makers) would do as good a job with speeding messaging as they have done with safety belts and impaired driving, because those really are the three legs of the stool,'' he said.
The message is one the Governors' Highway Safety Association is lobbying Mr. Runge to send. The association represents the top highway safety officials from all states.
``We have been pressing him left and right on this,'' said association spokesman Jonathan Adkins. ``This is a big issue in the states.''
Mr. Adkins said the association doesn't suggest that commercials alone cause speeding. Association members accept that the urge to speed is culturally ingrained, he added.
But a marketing emphasis on speed-even by traditionally safety-conscious Volvo Car Corp.-is ``one more thing that tilts the wheel'' toward greater risk, he said.
The governors' group urges NHTSA to treat speed as seriously as other priorities, such as promoting occupant protection in crashes and fighting impaired driving. The state officials call speed ``highway safety's neglected stepchild,'' even though it is a factor in nearly one-third of fatal crashes.
A call for help
Mr. Runge's challenge to auto makers to be sensitive about their commercials' influence is inspired by his own longstanding concern as well as the state officials' requests, said NHTSA spokesman Rae Tyson.
States have primary responsibility for setting and enforcing speed limits. The governors' association has called on NHTSA to help by taking the following steps:
* Endorse the use of cameras to catch speeders and red-light runners.
* Conduct more speed-related research.
* Develop an anti-speeding communications campaign.
* Participate in a national conference on speeding.
* Discourage auto makers from glorifying excessive speed.
Mr. Tyson said discussions about the proposed national conference are under way.
Mr. Runge called the preoccupation with speed in advertising the industry's biggest failing of the past several years. But he expressed empathy with marketers who might be called on to work speed warnings into advertising.
``How do you do that and still sell cars?'' Mr. Runge said. ``I don't know.''