Feature story

Slow down, the spirits say

‘Ghosts’ come to life in a quirky campaign that drives home the message on road safety


or 24-year-old Prasad Khawadkar, the daily 23km bike ride from his home in Mumbai’s Dombivli suburb to his workplace in Airoli in Navi Mumbai is filled with anxiety — and road accidents. “I see an accident nearly every day,” he says.

Navigating India’s chaotic and lethal roads is not for the meek. There were more than 150,000 deaths in about 400,000 road accidents across the country in 2018. That amounts to some 400 fatalities every single day and this is only the officially recorded toll. The suffering and trauma of victims and their families aside, road accidents bled India an estimated 4.2 trillion (about $58 billion) in the period.

The grimness of the situation has served as the catalyst for an inventive ‘defensive driving’ programme launched in December 2019 by Tata STRIVE, the skill development initiative of the Tata Trusts, in partnership with Tata Elxsi, a design and technology services company. Called Badhti Ka Naam Gaadi, this is a behaviour-change campaign that aims to educate drivers and, through them, make our roads safer.

Relearning to drive

Defensive driving itself is a form of training that aims to improve a person’s driving skills by anticipating situations, reducing road risks and making safe decisions. Drivers are made aware of their personal responsibility when on the road and the need to be alert to human error. Also covered are psychological factors such as stress, fatigue and road rage, and the importance of safety equipment. In short, defensive driving is about mobility with responsibility.

Animated characters populate the 24 videos in the campaign and the response has been positive, with more than 2,500 people registering on the mobile app created for it.

The effort has been focused on changing the attitude of drivers while generating greater impact through social media. “We wanted to get into the psyche of people and focus on emotions and behaviour instead of just driving skills,” says Anita Rajan, the chief executive of Tata STRIVE.

Experts were consulted and research conducted to better understand what could make the campaign effective. A common thread in some of the best public interest campaigns globally is the use of humour to convey the message. A light touch laced with humour of the darker kind was the path the programme took.

The premise was out of the world, so to speak: a talk show asking ghosts of accident victims to narrate their experience and counsel ‘living’ drivers to adopt safe driving practices. The idea of using the ghostly theme works as a reminder that thrill-seeking driving is potentially fatal, and it was executed sensitively.

The videos feature actor Vijay Raaz as a talk show host who chats with the ghosts. The animated characters who underscore the importance of defensive driving are based on stereotypical personalities, a boisterous Punjabi and a flashy Mumbai businessman among them.

A quiz and a certificate

The videos with Vijay Raaz were shot at a studio in Tbilisi, Georgia, and on the streets of the city over a week and later integrated with animation back in the studio in Mumbai. An online quiz was designed to reinforce the learning. Successful completion of the quiz merits a ‘defensive driver certificate’ for participants.

The videos were released on multiple platforms, including a YouTube channel and a microsite. Social media was employed extensively to maximise the appeal of the videos. The campaign kicked off in the run-up to the ‘national road safety week’ in January 2020 and, down the line, the team organised an event on TikTok, the video-sharing service, where participants from 41 Tata STRIVE centres rapped to the campaign’s signature song.

Scheduled to run for six months, the Badhti Ka Naam Gaadi campaign has notched up impressive numbers: close to 4 million impressions (the number of times viewers were exposed to social media posts that contained the videos) and 0.95 million video views. However, the campaign’s bigger accomplishment has been in bringing about a mindset change among the people it has reached. “After watching the videos I realised that India as a nation is very casual about road safety,” says Rourkela native Sudhanshu Kishan, who is training to be a wireman.

Tata STRIVE’s involvement in the campaign is unusual, given that it was established to provide skills training to unemployed youth and to spark entrepreneurial thinking in them. Ms Rajan has an explanation: “Many people ask us how a driving campaign relates to our work. Since we work primarily with youngsters, their safety on the road is an important part of our relationship with them.”

Mr Khawadkar has become a convert on road safety after being introduced to the programme. “When I find drivers switching lanes without using the indicator, I reduce my speed — that’s defensive driving,” he says. “I don’t mind reaching my destination late, but I can minimise the risk of accidents.”

The campaign is also providing seasoned drivers with a reality check. Among them is Mumbai-based Manohar Yadav, who has been driving a car for 15 years. “I knew all the road rules but I would not pay attention while driving,” he says. “Now I know the importance of being alert about what is going on around me when I am on the road.”

Ms Rajan is upbeat about what the initiative has achieved. “We hope people will see the ghost characters in the videos, and say, ‘Oh my God, if I am not careful, that could be me.’” India has plenty of need for care and concern on its roads and help is welcome from all quarters, even poltergeists.