The car in the TV commercial rockets around corners, soars like Evel Knievel and then rolls over about half a dozen times. It's extreme driving even by advertising standards, but what's really remarkable is the type of car being pitched: Volvo, long known as one of the safest, most responsible of brands.
Volvo's recent ads for its S40 sedan highlight what safety advocates say is shift toward speed and high performance in the auto industry and the glorification of those qualities in advertising. While complaints forced Nissan to kill an expensive commercial in 1990 because it showed a 300ZX outracing a jet plane, today's standards are far looser, from Cadillacs going so fast the paint peels off to Mercedes depicting its engines as terrifying, house-wrecking monsters.
An ad from traditionally staid Volvo shows its S40 sedan racing and crashing in a video game.
Video: Washington Post staff writer Greg Schneider discussed this article during an interview on NewsChannel 8
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The over-the-top images reflect the reality that new technology has made engines more efficient and cars lighter than ever, resulting in the highest performance capabilities ever offered to the public. Cars accelerate faster, reach higher speeds and handle in ways that weren't possible a generation ago. The average horsepower of new vehicles has more than doubled in the past 20 years, from 107 in 1984 to 227 this year, according to Edmunds.com.
Safety advocates say the government has failed to keep up with the trend. The Governors Highway Safety Association, an alliance of state officials, says federal regulators ignore speed safety in favor of promoting seat belts and discouraging drunken driving. "We're at an all-time high for seat belt use, and fatalities continue to increase," association spokesman Jonathan Adkins said. "We feel that's because drivers are driving more aggressively, including speeding. Speed is a big problem and something we need some national leadership on."
There were 43,220 fatalities on U.S. roads last year, the highest number since 1990 and the second straight year of increasing deaths, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The rate of deaths per miles traveled stayed unchanged, because people also drove more than ever.
As many as two-thirds of those deaths might be blamed on "aggressive driving" behavior, including speeding and improper passing, the federal safety agency found in a 2001 study. That behavior is influenced both by the amount of power offered by the auto industry and by the way carmakers promote performance through advertising, said Brian O'Neill, head of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
"All these ads contribute to an attitude in this country that speed is sort of a game and fun and not a safety problem, yet in reality very high speeds and reckless driving . . . are as serious a problem as alcohol-impaired driving," said O'Neill, whose institute is funded by the auto insurance industry.
NHTSA chief Jeffrey W. Runge had an unexpected encounter with the issue a few weeks ago at, of all things, a lunch touting a new seat belt safety campaign. His corporate partner on the campaign was Toyota Motor Corp., and company officials capped off the lunch by showing a new series of television commercials on a projection screen.
In the spots, racing legend Darrell Waltrip drives his Toyota truck through someone's living room, cuts doughnuts on a lawn and gets pulled over by a long line of police cars after a high-speed chase. Runge, a former emergency room physician who often describes the highway carnage he has witnessed, watched the ads with what appeared to be increasing dismay. When someone asked jokingly if he had complained about them to Toyota, he raised his eyebrows and said, "Not yet."
In fact, Runge -- who emphasizes that he would rather work with the auto industry than as its adversary -- never did raise the issue with the company. His spokesman said Toyota was simply touting its racing program, and the message did not interfere with the seat belt campaign. "We're pleased to be working with Toyota . . . and look forward to a good relationship," spokesman Rae Tyson said. Runge was traveling abroad and unavailable for further comment.