Popularizer Of ‘Designated Driver’ Concept Can’t Get Drivers To Put Phones Down

Image courtesy of Ford Asia Pacific

Jay Winsten is not a household name, but everyone recognizes the term “designated driver,” which the Harvard professor brought to the United States, popularized, and turned into a social norm back in the ’80s. Now Winsten is trying to address the driving danger of our time: Why won’t drivers put their phones down?

Distracted driving is a growing problem, and messages meant to discourage it simply aren’t getting through. Governments and even phone companies have tried to get people to quit engaging with phones while driving or succumbing to other distractions like eating behind the wheel.

“We wanted to find out why all efforts to date to tackle distracted driving have utterly failed,” Winsten explained to the Associated Press.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, crashes related to distracted driving killed 3,477 people in 2015. Preliminary 2016 figures for only pedestrian traffic deaths showed an 11% increase over 2015, which may be linked to distracted driving and smartphone use while walking.

Distracted driving happens all the time, too. Drunk driving is more prevalent on weekend nights and holidays, but people are constantly distracted.

“This is happening at 8 in the morning on your way to work, at 2 in the afternoon when you are picking up your kids at school, every hour of the day,” Emily Stein, founder of the the Safe Roads Alliance, told the AP. She began the organization after her father was killed in 2011 by a driver who was entering information in her GPS device.

How do the public health eggheads want to fix this problem? The idea of the designated driver didn’t catch on because some guy at Harvard lectured at the public, of course. It became a social norm through our televisions, and it told people what to do instead of warning them what not to do.

The Center for Health Communication at Harvard, where Winsten is the director, was able to get Hollywood scriptwriters to integrate the idea in their storylines, most appropriately on the show Cheers, which was set in a bar.

That won’t work now. The problem with putting distracted-driving messages on mainstream TV shows is that our media landscape is fractured. We no longer have three television networks and sitcoms that just about everyone watches.

The other problem getting distracted driving messages in TV scripts is that the messages tend to be negative. Creating the social norm of the designated driver gave people a very simple and defined thing that they could do during an increase in drunk driving crashes in the ’80s.

Drivers are confident that we’re able to efficiently multitask, and bad things won’t happen to us. We are, however, afraid of all of those other idiots who are texting while driving, and most people, especially young adults, say that they drive “defensively.”

“If many young adults already drive defensively, they may respond positively to a campaign that encourages them to aspire to an even higher level of defensive driving skills,” Winsten told an interviewer for the school of public health’s website. The idea is to market attentive driving, and the message that a driver’s job is just to drive.

One positive message that we know of is a New York initiative to put up signs declaring rest stops to be “text stops,” reinforcing the idea that you stop the car before checking your texts.

It’s not all positive, of course: Other ways to discourage distracted driving that Winsten proposes are higher fines and harsher penalties for motorists caught using devices while driving. He also hopes for technological solutions, like a “driver mode” for phones, and for our social norms to change the same way they did around drunk driving.