Government Messages

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 the Chinese nation survive for millennia 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? Shouldn't we let the sharks eat them? 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". All long time residents of Hong Kong will surely have their own favourites.

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 physically 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 at less than one mile per hour, a two-second gap is meaningless whereas in fast moving traffic it may not be sufficient - especially, ironically, if the road surface is wet! But without the radio we do miss the occasional valid and 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 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.

Secondly, 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. You look down on us? We look down on you in return.

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 ten cents worth: keep a reasonable limit to the number of different messages being broadcast at any one time; subject 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.