Synopsis: The Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s Initiative on Media Strategies for Public Health will launch Project Look Out on April 15, 2021 to tackle a problem of growing importance in road safety: distracted driving. News reports are replete with stories of distracted drivers striking vehicles stopped in traffic; children exiting school buses; pedestrians crossing the road; bikers and cyclists sharing the road; police officers at road stops; and road crews in work zones. The campaign is modeled on the School’s National Distracted Driver Campaign conducted in collaboration with all major Hollywood studios and TV networks. Project Look Out will mobilize social-media influencers to widely share the campaign’s messages, and Hollywood writers to depict passengers intervening when a driver becomes distracted.
According to official U.S. estimates, distracted driving is responsible for over 1,000,000 crashes, 400,000 injuries, and 3,000 fatalities in the U.S. each year.
While the official estimates are bad enough, studies suggest that the actual number of casualties linked to distracted driving is considerably higher. A large-scale federal study, conducted at crash scenes, identified driver inattention as the “critical reason” in 41% of all driver-related, injury-involved crashes. Another major study, sponsored by the Transportation Research Board of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, used in-vehicle cameras and sensors to monitor the behavior of 3,500 drivers for extended periods and found that “distraction was a factor in 68.3% of the 905 injurious and property damage crashes.” In Canada, according to federal government estimates, 22.5% of serious road injuries involve distracted driving.
Thanks to numerous efforts over the past decade, public awareness of the distracted driving problem is now widespread. However, driver behavior has remained largely resistant to change, for four main reasons:
- In today’s digital culture, there’s tremendous psychological resistance to disengaging from one’s social and business worlds while driving.
- Many drivers have inflated beliefs about their skills at multitasking: “I’m not the problem. I can handle it.”
- In contrast to drunk driving, the dominant social norm around distracted driving remains largely permissive. There is no stigma or sense of shame associated with it.
- Laws enacted to prohibit specified distracted-driving behaviors have proven difficult to enforce.
Notwithstanding these hurdles, the outlook for preventing serious injuries and fatalities from distracted driving is promising: Local communities are re-designing roads to make them safer for pedestrians and cyclists (Vision Zero movement); auto manufacturers are developing driver-assist technologies to forstall or mitigate the consequences of distracted driving crashes; insurance companies are offering reduced premiums and other incentives to attentive drivers.
Public communication campaigns and advocacy efforts also will be required to break through the complacency of many drivers about their distracted driving behavior; build public support for road redesign initiatives in towns and cities; and promote widespread and correct use of driver-assist technologies.
One frequently cited example of successful communication campaigns is the National Designated Driver Campaign spearheaded by Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s Center for Health Communication from 1988-1993. Conducted in collaboration with all major Hollywood studios and TV networks, the initiative promoted a social norm that “the driver doesn’t drink” by importing the designated driver concept from Scandinavia. The campaign generated over $100 million each year in donated TV air-time through a combination of TV network-sponsored public service ads and depictions of characters serving as designated drivers in shows such as Cheers and Dallas.
Within four years of the campaign’s launch, a majority of Americans told pollsters they had served as a designated driver or been driven home by one, and alcohol-related traffic fatalities had declined by over 25%, compared to 0% change in the preceding three years. The campaign is credited, along with other factors, for contributing to the sharp decline — a decline that has been sustained over time.
Fast forward to “today’s drunk driving:” Distracted Driving. An intriguing new strategy for behavior-change campaigns is suggested by findings from U.S. public opinion surveys in which large majorities of respondents consistently say they worry about getting hurt or killed in a distracted driving crash caused by another driver. For example, 71% of respondents expressed this fear in the Travelers Risk Index.
These findings suggest an opportunity to strengthen distracted-driving prevention efforts by introducing a new message to promote attentive driving:
A driver cuts you off. Traffic suddenly halts.
Keep your guard up, and your phone down.
The Initiative on Media Strategies for Public Health at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health will promote this message through an initiative dubbed Project Look Out that will launch on April 15, 2021 during Distracted Driving Awareness Month. The campaign also will promote a message aimed at protecting vulnerable road users:
Each year, thousands of pedestrians and cyclists are struck and killed on U.S. roads. Drivers do your part: Keep your guard up, and your phone down.
The campaign will mobilize social media influencers to widely share the campaign’s messages, and Hollywood writers to depict passengers intervening when a driver becomes distracted. Arianna Huffington and Quincy Jones will help kick-off the campaign via social media.
Development of Project Look Out has been made possible by a grant from General Motors and gifts from the Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation and the Frank Stanton Foundation.