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Science

Belgian traffic institute unveils driving warning via Facebook

New application sends a computer-generated fake newspaper article describing death via car accident. The Belgian Institute for Traffic Safety wants to reduce the number of traffic accidents to zero.

Crashed cars

Belgium wants to reduce fatal car accidents

It's weird enough to encounter online reminders of a loved one who has passed away. But what if you received an e-mail describing your own mortal demise?

That's precisely what the Belgian Institute for Traffic Safety (IBSR) is now doing through what appears to be a unique new Facebook application, launched last week.

The IBSR's "Go for Zero" application lets Facebook users generate a fake newspaper article and send it to one of their Facebook friends. The article describes their death in a car accident while under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

The application, the insititute says, is part of ongoing campaign to reduce the dozens of Belgians who die in traffic accidents while under the influence.

"The idea is to sensitize people to accidents that take place over the weekend, so that people can become more aware themselves," Benoit Godart, an IBSR spokesperson, told Deutsche Welle. "Often, peer pressure can be more effective. We're using peer pressure in a positive sense."

Godart added that sometimes young passengers are too embarassed and unwilling to warn their friends not to drive when under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

Facebook

The warning e-mail is generated through a Facebook application

The IBSR says that according to its own research, young drivers make up over one-third of serious car accidents that take place over the weekend. In addition, 37 percent of Belgian youths between the ages of 18 and 29 have gotten into a car with a driver under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol.

TV campaign would be 'useless'

In a test use by Deutsche Welle, the application generated a French-language e-mail that described a car accident involving a car driving too fast, at 170 kilometers per hour (105 miles per hour).

"At the moment of impact, it seemed that the young man was traveling at a speed above 170 kilometers per hour," read the fake article, which can also be sent in Dutch. "This high speed caused the loss of control of the vehicle. His Toyota collided with two other cars that then smashed into center divider. The other drivers were seriously injured but are expected to recover."

The recipient knows that the article is fake - not only because he or she is reading about his or her own death - but also by a disclaimer at the bottom of the e-mail saying that the article is fictional and part of a traffic safetycampaign.

Godart added that by using a Facebook application and e-mail, he hopes to reach young Belgians where they spend a lot of their time.

"It would be useless to do a television campaign," he said.

Crashed cars

The fake news story is meant to serve as a warning to would-be drivers

Worried about possible risks

The macabre public service message has certainly raised questions among social media and technology experts.

"The ethical approach here is fraught with risk," wrote Stephanie Donald, the dean of the School of Media and Communication at Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in Australia, in an e-mail sent to Deutsche Welle.

Donald is concerned that the approach may be too aggressive and could be misused by people trying to hijack the message and playing a practical joke on others. She posited that perhaps a better online campaign might involve giving drivers access, online or in-person, to people who have been in car crashes, or work with those who have long-term disabilities.

"Seeing a footballer who now can hardly speak to camera or walk might be a stronger deterrent - and this could be coupled with a game of choices - one leading to crash, another leading to safety," she added.

Author: Cyrus Farivar
Editor: John Blau

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