Stopping Distracted Driving: What Will It Take?

Despite a sharp increase in awareness of the distracted driving problem, we're not seeing a significant change in drivers' behavior. Why not? And, what will it take to turn this problem around? Why did another campaign -- the designated-driver campaign against drunk driving -- succeed? And what's different about the distracted-driving problem?
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I was driving at 50 mph, in the passing lane of a local four-lane road, navigating numerous twists and turns on my way home. I counted 47 oncoming cars, each of which was separated from me by a mere four feet across the double yellow line. We were closing on each other at a combined speed of 100 mph, moments away from a possible head-on crash. All it would take, I thought, was for one driver to drift across the yellow line -- while sending a text message, dialing a call, or adjusting a multimedia system -- and I could instantly become the latest casualty of distracted driving.

We seldom think about the high degree of trust we place in an oncoming driver. It does indeed take a village to get home safely! And, sometimes it doesn't work out. At any given daylight moment across the U.S., approximately 660,000 drivers are using electronic devices. In 2011, 3,331 people lost their lives and 387,000 suffered injuries in crashes involving a distracted driver.

The problem of distracted driving exploded onto the public and policy agendas over the past several years. Former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, who made it his signature initiative while in office, deserves immense credit for creating a national movement to address the problem. Companies like AT&T, State Farm, Allstate and Toyota, and nonprofits like the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, have made important contributions to the effort, along with numerous grassroots organizations.

However, notwithstanding the sharp increase in awareness of the problem that has been achieved in recent years, studies suggest that we're not yet making a significant dent in changing drivers' behavior. Which raises the obvious question, why not? And, what will it take to turn this problem around? Moreover, why did another campaign -- the designated-driver campaign against drunk driving -- succeed? And what's different about the distracted-driving problem?

It was 25 years ago this month that the Harvard School of Public Health's Center for Health Communication, which I direct, launched the U.S. Designated Driver Campaign in collaboration with leading TV networks and Hollywood studios. Starting in 1988, my colleagues and I sought to demonstrate how a new social concept, the "designated driver," could be rapidly diffused through American society via mass communication, catalyzing a fundamental shift in social norms relating to driving-after-drinking.

We were attracted to the designated-driver concept -- which originated in Scandinavia -- because it promoted a new social norm that the driver doesn't drink, lent social legitimacy to the non-drinking option, encouraged people to plan ahead if they were going out for the evening, and placed the issue of drinking-and-driving on the interpersonal agenda of small social groups. Our campaign wasn't anti-alcohol, and it asked for only a modest change in behavior: if you drink, drink only in moderation, and choose a designated driver who doesn't drink at all. The campaign's slogan -- "The Designated Driver is the Life of the Party!" -- was positive and empowering, and carefully positioned the designated driver as an integral part of the social group.

The campaign broke new ground when the Hollywood creative community agreed to depict the use of designated drivers in scripts of top-rated television programs, such as "Cheers," "L.A. Law" and "The Cosby Show." Over a four-year period, more than 160 prime-time episodes incorporated the campaign's message in sub-plots, scenes and dialogue. Further extending the campaign's reach, the leading broadcast networks aired frequent public-service announcements during prime time, encouraging the use of designated drivers. And, the campaign generated extensive news coverage. Altogether, we generated more than $100 million per year in media exposure for the campaign's message -- enough for a major new product introduction in the U.S. Our goal was to package and market a new product -- the "designated driver" -- to the American public.

Public-opinion polls documented rapid, wide acceptance of the designated-driver concept. According to a 1991 Roper Poll, 52% of Americans under the age of 30 had served as a designated driver. Among frequent drinkers, 54% had been driven home by a designated driver. By 1998, a majority of adults who drink had served as a designated driver or been driven home by one. And while some designated drivers still don't refrain entirely from drinking, a recent study, conducted in a college town on the night before a big football game, found that 60% of designated drivers had no detectable alcohol in their systems.

When the campaign began in late 1988, annual alcohol-related traffic fatalities stood at 23,626. By 1992, fatalities had dropped by 24%, compared to no change in the three years just prior to the campaign. Several other factors also contributed to the downward trend, including tougher laws, stricter enforcement, and a change in the legal drinking age.

So we know that media campaigns can move the needle on behavior change. But here's the catch: In 1988, when we started, there were only three major broadcast networks. Cable TV was not nearly as ubiquitous as it is now, and there was no Internet or social media. With the three major broadcast networks supporting the campaign, we could reach 75% of the American public on any given evening.

In contrast, the architects of today's social-change campaigns confront a highly fragmented media marketplace and consumers' extremely short attention spans. As a result, it's an uphill struggle to reach large audiences, and to keep their attention for long enough to change social norms and behaviors. Even a breakthrough idea will generate only a month's worth of public interest, so campaign planners need to create a series of high-profile "moments" -- a tough challenge indeed.

The rules for conducting successful behavior-change campaigns in this new environment require a major re-write, and no one has yet invented a successful new model. The Harvard School of Public Health's Center for Health Communication will try to do so through a new national initiative aimed at changing social norms and behavior around distracted driving.

In addition to new communication initiatives, the policy arena is likely to prove crucial in attacking the distracted-driving problem. This will require beefed-up state laws and stricter enforcement aimed at drivers' behavior, combined with aggressive federal regulation of in-car multimedia systems. Technological fixes are likely to play key roles in curbing distracted driving.

The most important action that state legislatures can take at this time is to institute a complete ban on all handheld cell phone use, which will save lives and greatly simplify police enforcement. Applauding Illinois' recently enacted ban, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx said, "Distracted driving is a dangerous epidemic, and this new law is a critical step toward creating safer roads."

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and the Harvard School of Public Health in an effort to call more attention to the dangers of texting while driving. Distracted driving is the cause of 350,000 crashes per year, and the series will be putting a spotlight on efforts being made to combat the crisis by the public and private sectors and the academic and nonprofit worlds. In addition to original reporting on the subject, we'll feature at least one post a day every weekday in November. To see all the posts in the series, click here; for more information on the national effort, click here.

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