Jay A. Winsten, a Harvard scholar who helped popularize the concept of the designated driver three decades ago to fight drunk driving, is working on a campaign to fight distracted driving. Part of the reason his campaign on designated drivers was successful was his reliance on Hollywood  to embed the message in pop culture.  (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Jay A. Winsten thinks it’s time we use the secret weapon that reduced drunk driving fatalities in the United States to reduce the problem of distracted driving.

It’s called shame.

To work, the campaign will most likely need to enlist the most shameless of industries: Hollywood.

Winsten knows what he’s talking about.  The Harvard University scholar helped popularize the concept of the designated driver in the United States three decades ago. His campaign filtered the message through TV shows and pop culture to shift public attitudes.

But Winsten, who is associate dean of the Harvard School of Public Health, also believes that the looming fight against distracted driving will be more difficult. For one thing, most people only drink on occasion, and only some get behind the wheel after becoming impaired, he said. But almost everybody has a smartphone these days, and too many of them can’t put their phones down while driving.

“It’s a very selfish behavior,” Winsten says. “It’s basically saying, ‘I think I’ll get away with it and I’m prepared to take that risk with somebody else’s life because I want to reply to a text right now or I want to make a phone call.'”

Winsten, who is consulting with Massachusetts and federal authorities on strategies to combat distracted driving, sees major challenges ahead to alter that way of thinking.

In a wide-ranging chat, Winsten discussed how he conducted his previous campaign to combat drunk driving, ideas he’d like to borrow from the U.S. Air Force and the New England Patriots, the possible benefits of backseat-driving, the lucky timing of a Hollywood writers strike, and how “Cheers” — the classic TV sitcom about a bar and its lovable bunch of regulars — did its part to keep drunk drivers off the road.


In this screengrab of a “Cheers” episode available on TV.com, Carla — played by Rhea Perlman — draws lots to see whose turn it is to the designated driver. The episode aired in 1990, according to IMDB.com. And it was Norm, by the way, who was picked. Norm (George Wendt) thought he was in for the worst night of his life.

The following Q&A is edited:

Q: How does your project on distracted driving differ from your work on drunken driving?

A: When we got started in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s with the designated driver campaign, there were three TV networks, and Fox wasn’t a factor yet. And if you had three friends, one on each network, you could hope to reach 75 percent of the American public in prime time on any given evening.

But today — with not only the extreme media fragmentation, but the very, very short attention span the public has — the big challenge in dealing with the distracted driving problem is this challenge of sustainability.

Even if you break through with a creative idea like the “Ice Bucket Challenge,” which generates five weeks’ worth of attention, five weeks only gets you so far.

What about the other 47 weeks of the year and the year after that?

Q: What else is different about fighting distracted driving, compared with drunken driving?

A: There’s absolutely no social stigma connected with distracted driving today — unlike drunk driving, which took years to develop that social stigma. And Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), starting in 1980, had a lot to do with that. But today, you know, if someone asks me at a cocktail party what I’m working on, and I say distracted driving, they’ll laugh and talk about their own behavior and how they’ll have to change because they themselves are a distracted driver. There’s no stigma of any kind associated with it. . .

We need to create that stigma. We need to create a sense of shame connected with the behavior of driving distracted, which doesn’t exist today.


Jay A. Winsten, associate dean of the Harvard School of Public Health and the Frank Stanton Director of the School’s Center for Health Communication, helped popularize the concept of the designated driver in the United States. That campaign helped reinvigorate the effort to eliminate drunken driving. Now he wants to try to do the same for distracted driving. (Photo courtesy of Harvard University/Sarah Sholes)

Q: What about all the laws prohibiting distracted driving?

A: All sorts of laws in place have been ineffective because they’re really, really tough to enforce.

Q: Do you think the federal government should take a stronger role, perhaps by requiring technology that prevents drivers from using their smartphones?

A: There won’t be a public demand for that. The general public, by and large, are distracted drivers. Until there’s a stigma attached with that behavior and until there’s a shift in social norms there won’t be political support to back up a regulation like that. The societal change has to come first.

Q: What other barriers exist to change?

A: Drunk driving, except for severe problem drinkers, is an episodic event on a Friday evening or a Saturday evening . . . But in this case, we’re connected to our devices 24/7/365 [days a year]. And it’s almost an unnatural act, when you step into a vehicle, to set aside that smartphone and to remove yourself from the social environment that envelops you . . .

Q: Paradoxically, you say the risk of causing a distracted-driving crash is low enough that people can beat the odds for while — and yet that only makes it harder to fight. Is that correct?

A:Most of the time you get away with it.  And each time you get away with it, that reinforces your belief that you can handle it, and it makes it tougher to break through and get people to change. . . Young people tell pollsters, “I’m an above-average driver” — they’re all above average — and that “I’m great at multi-tasking.”

They also say in polls that they’re anxious about getting hurt in a crash, in a distracted driving crash, and that it’s highly likely to be caused by the other driver, not themselves.  

Q: What about using  virtual reality to demonstrate how easily distractions can cause accidents?

 A: When they view these kind of dramatized, high-impact reenactments of car crashes in slow motion caused by a distracted driver, they’ll watch it by the millions, the way they’ll watch a good flick on a Saturday evening at the movie theater. But as they view it, they’re thinking to themselves, at least implicitly, “But that’s not me, because I can handle it” .  .  . It kind of shakes them up – “But that’s not me. . .”

And I think that’s part of why all of the efforts to date have utterly failed to make a significant dent in the distracted driving problem.

Q: So what will do the trick to reduce distracted driving?

Technology is driving the problem, but it is also I think part of a solution. Insurance companies [are] starting to explore how apps can be used to track safe driving habits and over time you’ll be able to get a reduced insurance rate if the evidence shows you’re not a distracted driver .  . .

Q: What about government’s role?

A: We’re going to need a second generation of legislation. We’re going to need federal regulation of the entertainment systems that are being installed in cars, because at the moment it’s a mad technology race on the part of auto manufacturers.

Nobody wants to be the one to say, ‘I’m going to be the one to turn off your display screen on the dashboard’ when your competition isn’t. So regulations are going to be needed to be create an even playing field for all the manufacturers.

Q: What do you think about efforts by some crash victims to file lawsuits against automakers, smartphones manufacturers, or wireless providers? 

Litigation will make a significant contribution. . .But I don’t think society’s ready for that. There have been a couple court cases, but the cases have been thrown out of court. It’s too soon. . . Again, because there’s no stigma connected to the behavior.

Q: When you talk about the need to build a communications campaign that creates that stigma, what do you mean?

A:  Candy Lightner, the founder of MADD in 1980 when she lost her daughter to a drunk driving crash, almost singlehandedly placed the issue on the media and public policy agendas through the creative use of controversy. . .So the community mobilization and, even the name, and the involvement of mothers and fathers who had lost a child to a drunk driving crash – generated a tremendous amount of media attention.


Candy Lightner, president of MADD, Mothers Against Drunk Drivers, appears as a witness before a House subcommittee on Commerce, Transportation and Tourism in Washington, D.C. on Oct. 4, 1983. Lightner was pushing a bill to restrict the sale of alcoholic beverages to those under age 21. (AP Photo/John Durika)

Candy Lightner, founder and president of (MADD) Mothers Against Drunk Driving, is flanked by members of Congress and the administration as she addresses a rally on Capitol Hill, on June 13, 1984, in Washington to seek support of legislation that would raise drinking age to 21. Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) and Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Dole, at far right, stand in support with Lightner to support the legislation. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

I think media was key in shaping public attitudes and expectations. Within five years of its establishment in 1980, Mothers Against Drunk Driving had created 500 local affiliates that were mounting sit-ins at statehouses to demand tougher laws. . . None of that exists around distracted driving.

Q: How did you latch onto the idea of using the designated driver to fight drunken driving? 

A: I didn’t invent the concept. It was invented in Scandinavia. And there had even been a couple of short-term projects in the U.S., local ones. In the Washington, D.C. area, the Washington Regional Alcohol Program (WRAP), [which is] still under way today – that was the first project I heard about.  .  .

[W]hat I saw in that was, it promotes a new social norm and expectation that the driver doesn’t drink. The concept lent social legitimacy to the non-drinking role.

Archives: Washington nonprofit launches designated driver program in 1985 by Fredrick Kunkle on Scribd

Q: What happened next?

The slogan we settled on was, “The designated driver is the life of the party.”

So it’s all about taking care of your friends. It’s not just an individualistic thing. It’s all about small group behavior and supporting each other.

Q: You say you also had to be careful how you framed the designated driver campaign. Why?

A: There were critics of the designated driver concept who said, “Yeah, well, you’re giving license to everyone else to get drunk. You’re encouraging abusive drinking.”

And so the way we framed the message is, “If you drink, drink only in moderation and choose a designated driver who didn’t drink at all.”

Q: What happened next?

A: We had all three major networks on board, and they produced [public service advertisements] at their own expense that they aired in prime time, featuring the stars of their own shows promoting the concept from 10 to 20 times a week in peak periods. We were able to generate a lot of news coverage.

But the key breakthrough was the Hollywood component. . . That’s where we were able to model the behavior. And that’s where we were able to kind of help to reinforce the stigma that was already beginning to evolve around drunk driving.

Q: What made you decide to involve Hollywood?

A: The “a-ha moment” there was in the New York City Harvard Club, where I was having breakfast with my most important professional mentor: former CBS president Frank Stanton, who was a friend and donor to Harvard and the like. He would say, ‘You’re doing great work with news and advertising but you’re missing the boat,’ and he made the argument about entertainment programming.

And he introduced me then to Grant Tinker who had recently left the chairmanship of NBC to return to L.A. as a producer.

And Grant took me under his wing and introduced me to the CEOs of all the major studio TV divisions. And through them, I spent 25 work-weeks in L.A. meeting one on one with about 250 executive producers and senior writers and the like.

And out of that, 160 prime time TV episodes emerged with the designated driving message over a four year period starting in November ‘88, at the end of the writer’s strike.

I was lucky about the writer’s strike — the writers had nothing to do but meet with me. . .

Q: Did it work?

A: We were able to generate, according to the trade press, in excess of $100 million per year in donated print and mostly television air time for the designated driver message, all with a budget of $300,000 — and largely by working with the Hollywood creative community, where TV writers were depicting the use of designated drivers right in the scripts of all the top prime time shows – like “L.A. Law,” “Cheers,” and “The Cosby Show.”

And what that did was model the behavior. And it turns out there’s research supporting what’s called social learning theory that [Albert] Bandura at Stanford was the leader on. And what that says is that you can learn vicariously by watching characters in fictional programming, that you can learn a lot about accepted behavior and social norms.

Q: It sounds like the sort of impact “Will & Grace” had on changing American attitudes on LGBT issues,  correct?

A: Agreed. Because we each got to know someone. Gay people were no longer strangers. Also, the power of story-telling is an extremely important strategy for generating change around attitudes and social norms.

Q: You say that you’d like to build this new campaign on surveys showing people are increasingly fearful that the other guy is going to cause a serious crash because of distracted driving – and then use that to make people more attentive as drivers. Can you explain?

A: Forty-five percent also say they tend to drive defensively today, which suggests they may be receptive to messaging about protecting themselves from other drivers. [T]he way to do that is to strengthen their defensive driving skills and to broaden that from defensive driving to attentive driving.

Attentive driving — the promise of a campaign would be — will help to protect you against threats posed by other drivers. So we’re flipping it around.

Q: How would such a campaign work?

A: This approach kind of taps into a preexisting fear – which is how deodorant advertisers kind of earn their keep. They raise a fear, but then they offer a solution immediately: you can go into a store and for $3.99 you can take care of it.

So how do we package the concept of attentive driving and make attentive driving cool?

[H]ow do we mobilize kids — among other target groups – – as interveners? And also other adult passengers in vehicles who are also worried about the other driver and who want their driver to be focusing on scanning for the environment [and] maintaining situational awareness . . .

The Air Force has a saying that the key difference between a good pilot and a dead pilot is situational awareness. Likewise in football: They say [Patriots football coach Bill] Belichick is a genius teaching situational awareness on the football field. It’s true in the operating room in the medical environment.

Q: How does distraction interfere with situational awareness?

A: If you’re deeply engaged in a phone conversation, even if you’re not holding the phone, and you’re looking straight down the road and so you have this idea you’re paying attention . . .[w]hat people don’t realize is that they develop tunnel vision.

It’s been shown in eye-tracking studies, that if you’re deeply engaged in something, you may stare straight ahead, but you’re no longer scanning left and right, and your peripheral vision largely disappears. And you’re not going to notice something coming into your peripheral vision until it’s too late. And so how do you avoid tunnel vision? You do that with prompts of various kinds. I think over time there will be technology in the car that will periodically – when you’re coming into what I call a hot zone or a red zone – will prompt you to try to break through the tunnel vision that you may have fallen into and help you escape it and scan left and right.

Q: You say it’s not even such a good idea to check your phone at a red light because it messes with your situational awareness. Why?

A: People think they’re fine [and] can check their email at a light. The problem is they sometimes don’t figure out it’s turned green until the guy honks at them, and then they’re under social pressure and they quickly proceed without reestablishing situational awareness and making sure that nobody else is running a red light. And they run right into it.

It takes about 30 seconds to re-establish situational awareness behind the wheel after you’ve lost it.

Q: And yet despite MADD and the designated driver, we still have a serious problem with DUIs. Why?

A: Mostly, we’ve been able to reach social drinkers, not alcoholics and problem drinkers which is why there are still drunk driving fatalities today. And there were other factors that at work in that period, including changing the minimum drinking age.

So we simply conclude that the polling data suggest that the campaign was an important factor among a mix of factors explaining the downward trend.

But I believe the media is the most important driving force.

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