As health communicators we are tasked with making sure that the right message is seen by the right people at the right time. But our job goes a step beyond that. We are also responsible for making sure that the audience interprets the message as we intended or that the reason for the message is clear. Unfortunately, despite our best efforts, sometimes the message we hoped to get across becomes fuzzy, and misinformation can occur.
Take the “Baby on Board” signs for example. You know you’ve seen vehicles bearing these decals on your morning and evening commutes. So just what was the purpose of this reminder at its inception? Has that message changed overtime?
Michael Lerner, eventual founder of Safety 1st, was the man behind the push of these placards. He recounts a day back in 1984 when he was taking his 18-month-old nephew home and felt that all cars were tailing him and cutting him off. As he put it, he felt a dose of what parents must feel with their children in the car, and so, partnering with a couple who had tried to get traction behind the bright yellow signs they had brought home from Germany, Lerner purchased their company and renamed it Safety 1st.
Some websites, including Quartz, aimed at debunking rumors and myths, are quick to point out that the urban legend that these signs were created as a reminder to first responder personnel to check a vehicle for children in the event of an accident is in fact just that, a myth.
But even with rumor sites like Quartz and Snopes, “setting the record straight,” there are many people who still believe the purpose of these signs is to alert first responders. I found mention of this purpose in the following articles that provide just a glimpse into the misinformation/or partially correct information circulating with respect to these signs: The Telegraph out of the U.K. on October 11, 2012, states that improper display of these signs in the back window of a vehicle actually can be a hazard in driving. On April 29, 2014, in an article on Today’s Parent, the author lists cautious driving as one of the “whys” of driving with one of these signs but also points to the emergency alert factor as a second reason to display the sign. And author Harold Holger, in an article for Thought Catalog, also writes that the primary reason for displaying these signs is to alert first responders.
It seems pretty clear that the reason for displaying these decals is not clear at all! While the original purpose of these signs was to encourage safe driving in the presence of a child, no one can deny that over the years, much like you might think of an old game of “Telephone,” the message got muddled and the intent was changed. All the more reason for health communicators to do our due diligence to vet the complete story so we tell the truth as best we can, without spreading misinformation where and when we can help it.