Can a snappy tune help curb traffic and pedestrian fatalities in Richmond?

Person walking across the street
VCU Brandcenter students have developed a few unusual marketing campaigns to help improve transit safety. (Getty Images)

For Brandcenter students at Virginia Commonwealth University, a lonely ghost, a catchy jingle and colorful murals are tools to deter road accidents.

Fifteen students in Kelly O’Keefe’s creative brand management class volunteered their spare time to develop marketing campaigns for Richmond’s participation in Vision Zero, a strategy to reduce traffic and pedestrian fatalities and injuries. In 2017, 22 people died on Richmond streets. That same year, Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney signed the Vision Zero pledge to eliminate traffic-related injuries and fatalities.

Two teams of VCU students agreed to work on the project. The value of working on it was the impact on people they might be able to influence, said O’Keefe, a professor of creative brand management.

“The only way that you can get people to change behavior from what they're accustomed to, in order to have more safe habits of driving and more safe habits of walking and cycling, is to do something creative enough to get through to them,” he said. “And fortunately, we live in a city that respects the imaginative creativity.”

Each group took a critical look at pedestrian safety and developed marketing campaigns that the city can adopt and implement easily. The teams presented their ideas last month to a group of city and university leaders, including Richmond Councilman Andreas Addison, who brought the various cohorts together last semester to coordinate safety efforts.

After conducting research that included focus groups and interviews, the first group of students — Joe Castagna, Jacob Steckmann, Ari Abad, Nanda Golden, Kristen deBarros, Arthur Olivarez, Brit Kern and Julian Grimes — approached the problem from the drivers’ and cyclists’ points of view. The group found that the way to prevent most accidents boiled down to sharing the road, obeying speed limits, buckling in, avoiding distraction and driving sober. 

“What we decided to focus on for this project was distractions,” Abad said. “We feel like distraction affects everybody.”

The primary component of their campaign is a song — a road-safety jingle so simple that anyone from toddlers to grandparents can remember it: “Stop look and listen, stop look and listen, stop look and listen with me.” 

“There's two important things about songs,” Steckmann said. “One, they're really easy to remember. If you can get a song stuck in your head, you'll remember it for the rest of your life. Two, songs come to you when you're not paying attention. So if we're dealing with the problem of distraction, you might want something that kind of pops in your mind when you're not thinking. And that's precisely what songs do.”

The students figured they could use Richmond's creative community to bring awareness to commuters' false sense of security — the idea of when we drive we think we’re safe because we’re in our space, Steckmann said. 

“But actually, it's a shared space [where] we need to watch out for each other and vice versa,” Steckmann added.  

The students hope drivers and cyclists will remember the tune, especially when maneuvering through busy intersections. 

“My 7-year-old was caught singing the jingle about a week ago,” said Michael Sawyer, a city transportation engineer. “It really does work."

The group’s other ideas included colorfully painted crosswalks so pedestrians know exactly where to cross streets, elaborately painted test dummies randomly placed at intersections, and design contests for stickers and other visual components such as murals. 

The only way that you can get people to change behavior from what they're accustomed to, in order to have more safe habits of driving and more safe habits of walking and cycling, is to do something creative enough to get through to them.

The second group of students — Ariana Safari, Ruthie Edwards, Joshua Browne, Evanne Allen, Tobi Oluwo, Kaitie Kovach and Charlotte Simons — decided to take advantage of the city’s rich ghostly history.

“We started out by thinking about what is it about this problem that we can tackle ourselves and have the biggest impact to keep people safe,” Kovach said. “Ultimately what we settled on for that was focusing on pedestrians.”

After conducting man-on-the-street interviews, they discovered a disturbing trend: Pedestrians were putting their safety in someone else’s hands.

One interviewee said he felt safer crossing the street midblock because he has greater visibility there than at intersections blocked by parked cars. Another pedestrian said she crosses the street no matter what because she trusts that drivers know they should not hit her. A third said that she thought, as a pedestrian, she always has the right of way.

“There's a really big misunderstanding about what pedestrians can and can't do and it leads to bad pedestrian behavior,” Kovach said. “Ultimately, what we learned from all that was that pedestrians are putting a lot of their safety in other people's hands and we wanted to find a way with our campaign to challenge them to own their own safety rather than trusting people they've never met.”

The group developed an eight-week strategy, à la “The Blair Witch Project,” that would introduce mysterious graffiti on sidewalks taunting people to keep looking at their phones as they walk around. (The “graffiti” would be done via power washing, rather than paint, so it disappears as the sidewalk becomes dirty again.)  

For people wondering who is leaving the “notes,” a URL at the bottom would direct them to a conspiracy website about a ghost that people have been seeing around town. (It turns out the ghost was the victim of a fatal car accident who wants company.) Subsequent weeks would introduce social media components inviting Richmonders to post their own pictures and stories of the ghost. The grassroots campaign is designed to get people talking, and thinking, about their safety.

Addison called the ideas “great recommendations.” 

“All of them provide a great avenue of exploring what we should do next,” said Addison, who plans to convene a meeting with VCU PD, Richmond PD, Public Works and the City Attorney’s Office to discuss student recommendations that involve the public right of way. That includes “the public art component, the painting of residential ‘no parking’ zones and other recommendations to define what policies, resolutions, ordinances or other efforts need to be addressed to pursue supporting recommendations from the students,” he said.