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Belgium’s Controversial New Facebook Traffic Death App

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I'm not [drunk], I'm driving.

The photographer writes: "Yes, while stuck in a traffic jam, a police officer observed a driver crack open a beer."

The Belgian Institute for Traffic Safety (whose Belgian acronym is IBSR) recently launched a new Facebook application that is causing controversy. Anyone on Facebook who wants to use the app can have it create a fake newspaper article that describes a friend’s death in a car crash while impaired by drugs or alcohol. The person sending the fake article first fills in a questionnaire with such details as the make, model, and color of the friend’s car, and the friend’s favorite bar. The app will then send the article to that very friend.

According to Cyrus Farivar, writing for Deutsche Welle, the institute launched the application, called “Go for Zero,” in November as part of an ongoing campaign to reduce the number of Belgians who lose their lives in car 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 [embarrased] and unwilling to warn their friends not to drive when under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

IBSR’s research shows that one-third of serious accidents that take place over the weekend in Belgium involve young drivers. It also finds that 37% of Belgian young people between ages 18 and 29 have gotten into a car with a driver who is driving under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol (DUI).

When Deutsch Welle tested the application, it generated a French-language email describing a car crash in which a young man was driving a Toyota at 170 kilometers (105 miles) per hour when he collided with two other cars and smashed into the road’s center divider. Deutsche Welle writes that the recipient of a fake car crash message knows they are 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 safety campaign.”

Spokesperson Godart told Deutsch Welle that IBSR designed the application for Facebook and email because that is where the young Belgians who IBSR hopes to reach spend a lot of their time. “It would be useless to do a television campaign,” he said.

Deutsche Welle writes that “The macabre public service message has certainly raised questions among social media and technology experts.” Stephanie Donald, dean of the School of Media and Communication at Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in Australia, questioned the risks of such an approach. She told Deutsche Welle that the idea might be too aggressive and misused by people trying to hijack the message and play practical jokes. She said it might be more effective to put young drivers in touch with people who have been seriously injured in car crashes, and/or to work with those with long-term disabilities.

Davion Ford reports in a video on Radio Netherlands Worldwide that people have been twittering that this app is “tasteless” and “shock-therapy,” and pointing out that these fake articles will remain online for years. Ford interviewed a man named Wouter Verrept whose secretary received a fake death message about him, while no one was able to reach him by cell phone. Verrept said his family panicked and was about to tell his five-year-old son that he was dead.

Ford also interviewed ISBR’s Sofie van Damme, who said about the app, “It is certainly less shocking than reading about fatal traffic accidents each Monday morning.”

Image by Joe Ruiz, used under its Creative Commons license.


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