Message to government: don't treat us like idiots

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 24 August, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 24 August, 2010, 12:00am

There you are, driving along in the middle of a typhoon with the black rainstorm warning in effect, rain beating against the windscreen, plumes of water splashing up from every passing vehicle and a voice comes on the radio ... 'Here is a message from the Road Safety Council. The road surface is wet ...'

Gee, thanks. However would we have known if you hadn't told us? And thanks also for the reminder to carry an umbrella when it rains.

Or in mid-winter as you are shivering under the quilt, the same voice comes on to tell you: 'It's cold outside, you should wrap up warm.' Or in mid-summer, you are stripped to your underwear, sweat gushing forth from every pore and there he is again: 'It's hot out today, stay in the shade, drink lots of water.' How did China survive for centuries without vital advice of this kind?

Another favourite is: 'Do not enter the water when the shark-warning flag is hoisted.' One question that immediately springs to mind is: 'Do people exist who need to be told this?' If they do, are they really worth saving? Isn't that how nature culls the herd of the weak and useless? All these slogans fall into the category of unnecessary reinforcement of common sense.

Then there are the truly meaningless ones like: 'I love Hong Kong, I love green.'

Now, we can all laugh at this nonsense, but there are some serious issues underlying these official messages.

First is the very real risk that we will automatically ignore all messages from the same source and thereby miss important information that would have been useful. We 'switch off' mentally, and this can actually create danger instead of inducing safety.

For example, some drivers now make a habit of switching off the car radio in all the cross-harbour tunnels because they are sick of being told to keep their distance or leave a two-second gap. Good drivers always keep a safe distance from the vehicle in front whether in tunnels or anywhere else. In bumper-to-bumper traffic, moving slowly, a two-second gap is meaningless, whereas in fast-moving traffic it may not be sufficient. But without the radio, we do miss the occasional urgent message reporting, for example, a bus breakdown in the nearside lane, or a traffic accident near the toll booth. This information would have been very useful and the lack of it may put all road users at risk.

So by swamping the air waves with rubbish, the organisation responsible for improving road safety is actually achieving the opposite effect.

Second, there is the almost irresistible urge to do the opposite of what the voice is urging. (Don't drop litter? - Take that!)

Finally, it is impossible to shrug off the impression that the government thinks of us all as imbeciles, unable to manage even the most basic aspects of daily life without elementary social education and frequent reminders. They seem to be holding us in contempt, and a natural reaction of those who think they are being thus treated is to be contemptuous of the source.

It surely cannot have been the intention of the government information machinery to generate an actual dislike of the government.

Columnists are sometimes accused of just being critical and not having anything concrete to offer by way of constructive suggestions. So here is my 10 cents' worth: keep a reasonable limit on the number of different messages being broadcast at any one time; hold the overall amount of airtime to a reasonable length; keep the individual messages short and sharp; and, above all, keep them relevant for adults in one of the world's most sophisticated cities.

In return, I promise to turn the radio back on next time I go through a tunnel.

Mike Rowse is the search director of Stanton Chase International and an adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong