Road safety educators ‘should not shy away from’ storytelling

12.00 | 23 May 2018 | | 7 comments

Empathy and storytelling have their place in road safety education – but hard-hitting images and gore are not necessary or effective, according to a new report.

The report – titled ‘the role of empathy through storytelling in young driver road safety education’ – has been authored by Jami Blythe from Northumbria Police, as part of her professional doctorate (DProf).

In her position as motor patrols officer, Jami Blythe is involved in delivering Road Sense Common Sense (Road Sense), an emergency services multi-partner young driver road safety presentation.

Road Sense takes a format similar to other initiatives across the country, such as Safe Drive Stay Alive and Wasted Lives. It is a staged presentation which comprises a short film and live speakers, delivered to sixth form students at their own schools and colleges.

Road Sense is designed to raise road safety awareness among young road users and promote better decision making through reflective accounts and authentic stories. No graphic or ‘gory’ images are used in the presentation.

Jami Blythe’s research began in 2015, when she began to analyse the engagement of the young audience with the short films and speakers featured in the Road Sense presentation.

In evaluation carried out immediately after the presentations, a ‘slight preference’ for stories told by the live speakers was observed, with in some cases twice the number of students finding the speakers more impactive than the short films.

Literature regarding empathy, storytelling and health communications was then explored to provide a basis for further research, in order to explore the potential of real stories to help deliver road safety messages to young drivers.

This was followed by focus groups with students to explore what aspects of the Road Sense presentation they could recall, and whether it had resulted in better decision making when travelling in vehicles with friends.

During one of the groups, Jami Blythe says a student explained how he had felt a ‘lump in [his] throat’ while watching the Road Sense presentation. The presence of discrete emotions, such as sadness, were also discussed during the session.

In her thesis, Jami Blythe makes the following recommendations for road safety professionals:

  • Embrace the experience of others, such as those from emergency services.
  • Identify narrators who can ‘be themselves’ and are not concerned with finger pointing or lecturing.
  • Value the reflective ability of young students by depicting life as relevant to them.
  • Hard hitting images and gore are not necessary, nor are they effective.
  • Offering a broad menu of stories from which the students can choose can replace task orientated messages such as ‘don’t drink and drive’.
  • Big budgets are not necessary – the value lies in the content of real stories, not in flashy camera work or Hollywood sets.

Jami Blythe said: “Road safety educators should not shy away from what some may perceive to be ‘sentimental and woolly’ methods of storytelling, but should embrace the potential of these authentic accounts.

“What the students in this study found most valuable, most credible and most engaging were the recollections of those who told honest and authentic tales of their experience.

“In times of financial austerity, storytelling can be recognised as a legitimate learning approach to develop a greater understanding of experience and therefore behaviour change.”

Dr Jami Blythe’s thesis is available for download from the Road Safety Knowledge Centre.


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    This is a really interesting premise and I’m going to be very interested in reading the report.

    One of the things that really jumps out here, and I’m hoping it will be addressed in the report itself, is the extent to which the storytelling could act as a proxy for the images/graphic video. One of the reasons radio / audio books or indeed books themselves are thought to be such a terrific medium for communication is that the absence of a pre-determined image allows the listener/reader to fill in the gaps and to colour wash the basic narrative with their own imagery. And what we are capable of imagining of course may be far more graphic than anything with which we could have been presented.

    Is there is genuine possibility that they are, in effect, performing exactly the same function and it’s the nature of the narrative and the effectiveness of the storyteller that is central to the argument rather than the specifics of the medium?

    On the RSCS website there is a welfare warning which states: “The presentation has been carefully compiled to be thought provoking. It does not contain any graphic images of collisions or bodies. It does, however, prompt the student’s imaginations. It is not unusual for a student to require medical attention as they feel faint or sick. We ask that the school support this welfare consideration by having enough staff on hand to deal with this.”

    It strikes me then that there is, on the face of it, a potential contradiction at the heart of the theory that graphic images are not required (because they can impede the engagement and learning process and can therefore be counterproductive) but that emotive storytelling can be a more effective alternative.

    Is one a genuinely beneficial alternative to the other, or are they two methods achieving the same outcome? Very interesting stuff and I’m really pleased this has been looked at – like Matt I’m eagerly awaiting the report.

    Jeremy, Exeter
    Agree (7) | Disagree (0)

    “..most credible and most engaging were the recollections of those who told honest and authentic tales of their experience.” Are these experiences actual crashes which the speaker(s) have been involved in? If so, then to be really useful it would have to be accompanied by – with hindsight – an analysis of how they could have avoided it and what mistakes were made by whom, otherwise the listeners will be none the wiser, other than having learnt that being in a crash is a bad thing and is best avoided …they need to know how.

    Hugh Jones
    Agree (7) | Disagree (1)

    Just a story.

    Back in the 90s in West Sussex with help from the Police and Crown Prosecuting Service we approached relatives of young people who had died in a road crash and asked them to present their story about their loss. On one occasion a mother “just couldn’t do it” which we really understood then the head teacher got up and to a hushed audience related how he saw a slow moving ambulance with escort heading through the village (The occupant was going to a specialist head injury unit in Portsmouth). The head teacher in a quiet voice described the phone call and 5 days sitting by his son before the decision was made to turn off the machines. This story had not been told to his staff or pupils as it had occurred before his appointment. Everyone, myself included, had tears in their eyes, even the police officers and ambulance crews who were about to present. After his very dignified talk he decided to dismiss the school for the rest of the day as it was obvious no-one would get anything done. I recently met one of the pupils who had been in that hall with his own teenagers and he said it had changed his attitude and others to their behaviours because he then understood how it could affect friends and family. The school went on to have 12 incident free years before a serious RTA involving a staff member. We had selected the school because we had identified an average of 6 incidents for 3 years involving pupils either as victim or instigator through irresponsible behavior.

    Having the right story is not enough though. It helps to be able to tell it. When I trained to teach I was told to practice using my voice and one of the best ways was to read books aloud especially children’s books and develop; range, pitch and pace.

    Peter wilson, Westminster
    Agree (13) | Disagree (0)

    One can really make a difference when in a training situation to tell an actual story to support what is written in a book or seen on a video.

    I don’t think that the content matters if it be something useful, appropriate, funny or serious providing it is said with confidence and truthfulness and that the end result is supporting the text.

    In motorcycle training or any other training for that matter we can tell stories from our own experiences or the experiences of others and this is part and parcel of putting old heads onto young shoulders.

    M.Worthington, Manchester
    Agree (4) | Disagree (0)

    Hallelujah! “Hard-hitting images and gore are not necessary or effective”, there is a light shining. Also, “most credible and most engaging were the recollections of those who told honest and authentic tales of their experience.” and not an embellishment or missing out the full honesty…………….. finally, “Big budgets are not necessary – the value lies in the content of real stories, not in flashy camera work or Hollywood sets.”

    Trevor Baird
    Agree (4) | Disagree (3)

    Matt – the report will be added to the Road Safety Knowledge Centre within the next couple of weeks.

    Nick Rawlings
    Editor, Road Safety News

    Nick Rawlings, Norfolk
    Agree (0) | Disagree (0)

    This looks like a very useful piece of research. Is there going to be a published report or any journal publications?

    Matt Staton, Cambridgeshire
    Agree (12) | Disagree (1)

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