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.
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.
Certain automakers have always marketed high performance, but safety advocates say the fact that previously staid brands such as Toyota and Volvo are now pitching themselves as speed demons carries the trend to dangerous new lengths.
"I can see people thinking, 'Even Volvo is doing it, so it must be okay,' " said the insurance institute's O'Neill.
Speed still kills, he said, citing a recent study that showed that states that raised speed limits on rural highways to 70 or 75 miles per hour led had 35 percent more fatalities. People are now driving faster than at any time since the institute began monitoring the trend in the late 1980s, he said.
Last year, 16 percent of drivers on rural highways in New Mexico were traveling faster than 80 miles per hour, according to an institute study. Before 1993, the same study registered no percentage of drivers at that speed, and the number has gone up nearly every year since. In Maine, state police studied interstate traffic and found an average speed of 85 mph, the governors alliance said.
O'Neill lays part of the blame on advertising; another institute study found that performance is the dominant topic in automobile ads, with safety appearing in only 2 percent of the spots.
Toyota said it has gotten a positive response to its truck ads, which air mainly on sports cable channels and during network sporting events. But Jim Aust, president and chief executive of Toyota Racing Development USA Inc., said one ad did concern the company. It shows a fan admitting that he once booed Waltrip, and then the driver paying him back by cutting doughnuts in his yard and driving over a hedge.
"We thought hard and strong about actually releasing that one, because it does send a message," Aust said. But he noted that the spot appealed strongly to the target audience of young males who like NASCAR racing.
The Japanese-owned Toyota is going all-out to break through the cultural barrier that has kept U.S. truck buyers loyal only to domestic models made by Ford Motor Co., DaimlerChrysler AG's Dodge unit and General Motors Corp. That market is the most profitable and popular segment of the auto industry, and it demands a certain type of image from its products, which is what the Waltrip series is aimed at delivering.
"We certainly believe those ads are understood to be tongue-in-cheek and to be fantastic situations that wouldn't occur in everyday life. It shows the company has a sense of humor," Toyota spokesman Mike Michels said. "Not in any way do we feel those ads condone driving down a public road in an irresponsible way. We think the general public is smart enough to distinguish."
Ford's Volvo brand also designed its new spot to reach a new, younger audience. When the S40 sedan debuted in 1999, its average buyer was 38 years old, and that age has risen every year since, company spokesman John Maloney said. So when the car was redesigned for 2004, Volvo -- with its reputation for boxy station wagons and tank-like safety -- wanted to aim younger.
"When we were talking to a younger audience, they said, hey, we know Volvo is safe . . . tell us something else about the brand," Maloney said. The something else was performance, and Volvo asked the makers of the Xbox game RalliSport Challenge 2 for permission to use game footage in its commercial.
The entire ad is computer-animated, a fact that Maloney said gives it license to be more outrageous. A few viewers have complained about the reckless driving, he said, but most have understood that it represents video game play and not the real world.
Today's consumers, saturated with video games and movie special effects, have a heartier appetite for such over-the-top images in advertising, said Brian Moody, an automotive expert with Edmunds.com. People also have higher expectations for their automobiles than ever before. While enthusiasts had limited choices during the muscle-car craze of the 1960s, today's technology makes most every vehicle a potential muscle car, from entry-level coupes such as the Ford Focus and Honda Civic to mighty pickups and SUVs.
It's not just horsepower that gooses up all those new cars and trucks, said David Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich. It's handling, lighter and stronger materials, traction control, stability control -- "so many factors have changed," he said.
The addition of so much technology to improve driver control makes the vehicles safer even as they go faster, he said.
In fact, Toyota's Michels argued that greater speed and performance are themselves safety features. "There are plenty of times when a squirt of horsepower is real handy," he said.
O'Neill disagrees. "That is absolute and utter nonsense," he said. "Why is it then that performance cars and sports cars are the ones that have the most crashes and more insurance claims? . . . Those speeds and capabilities get you into trouble, they don't get you out of trouble."
The Governors Highway Safety Alliance has written Runge and asked him to do something about the trend, and invited him to a forum later this year along with the insurance institute. Adkins said the alliance doesn't want Runge to ban advertising or place limits on carmakers, but that the group wants him to use his position to influence the industry to tone things down. The group also wants the Bush administration to fund efforts to step up speed enforcement, noting that many states have had to cut back on state troopers because of lack of money.
Runge is "adding speeding to the list of concerns, but setting speed limits and enforcement is the domain of state governments," NHTSA's Tyson said. "There are only a limited amount of things we can do from Washington. We can only work with the tools that are given to us."