Acura: Santa Is Real, and You Better Watch Out

If you tuned in to the news earlier this week, you likely heard that in 2011 U.S. road fatalities dropped to their lowest level since 1949. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the media practically consider it cause for celebration that *just* 32,000 or so people were killed in motor vehicle crashes last year. Maybe that’s understandable. In the last six decades, since the time before seat belts and padded dashboards were standard equipment, it’s the best we’ve been able to manage.

While everyone wants to get that 32,000 closer to zero, for some time it’s been socially acceptable to market American passenger vehicles as race cars. Though on one hand auto companies tout safety features that have helped reduce driver and passenger deaths, many if not most ads emphasize horsepower and high-speed handling. As if every family sedan doubled as a rally racer, and every motorist, possessing the keys to that sedan, could pass for a highly-skilled stunt driver.

A new seasonal campaign from Acura is a particularly egregious example. In these ads, celebrities including Dr. Phil and Santa Claus tear through urban streets, their eyes barely on the road as they zig-zag between lanes and speed around corners while lecturing passengers, whom they have plucked from shopping for Christmas decorations, on the finer points of decking the halls. “Listen to the voice of reason,” goes the tagline.

These commercials go a step further than the “need for speed” fantasies conveyed in much auto advertising. The hook here is that the celebs are driving fast, heedless of their environment. Watch the relieved couple hug when Dr. Phil drops them off at the Christmas tree stand. Hear the tires chirp when Santa backs across a sidewalk. Acura is promoting reckless driving. That’s the joke.

This might be all in good fun, except that in 2010 speeding was a factor in 31 percent of fatal traffic crashes in the U.S., crashes that killed some 10,000 people. (The NHTSA says data on 2011 speed-related crashes will be released Friday.)

A few days ago in Brooklyn, two drivers collided on a neighborhood street. At the moment of impact at least one of them was traveling with sufficient speed that one vehicle, a Jeep Cherokee, flipped over. Before it came to a stop, the Jeep slammed into Chenugor Dao, her husband, daughter and 1-year-old granddaughter, who were standing on a nearby corner. Dao was killed.

The second car, driven by a man who was either speeding or ran a stop sign, according to police, before he crashed into the Jeep, happened to be an Acura MDX — the same model we see ripping around corners and plowing through crosswalks, with Dr. Phil supposedly at the wheel, in one of these jocular ads.

Given tens of thousands of preventable traffic deaths every year, maybe it’s time for car companies and their hucksters to send “Closed course, do not attempt” to the scrapyard.