Cheers, Season 8

A Harvard University scholar who was influential in coining the term “designated driver” is now taking on distracted driving by calling on Hollywood to help. Jay Winsten, Frank Stanton Director of the Harvard School of Public Health’s (HSPH’s) Center for Health Communication, and his team are planning a conference in the fall to bring TV producers and writers to HSPH for working sessions to plan strategies for ways to embed the message of the risks of distracted driving into their shows.

The Harvard Gazette reports that texting and cell phone use will be the main targets, but the campaign will also seek to raise awareness of the hazards of any other distracting behaviors, such as programming a GPS device or resetting a child’s entertainment center.

There have been many efforts to educate the public about the dangers of distracted driving. Many states have passed laws regulating texting and cell phone use while driving, and large companies have created ads, such as AT&T’s “It Can Wait” anti-texting campaign, which Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile have joined as partners, the Harvard Gazette writes. And U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has made reducing distracted driving a top priority.

But as this blog wrote on May 9, a study by the National Safety Council (NSC) found that auto accidents involving cellphones are “vastly underreported” and that makes it appear that distracted driving is less of a problem than it actually is. The NSC estimates that 25% of all motor vehicle accidents involve cellphone use.

As Steve Annear reports for Boston magazine:

Winsten says simply banning distracted driving on its own, and relying on campaign messages and police enforcing the law by ticketing drivers and issuing citations isn’t going to plant the seed that people need in order to transform the social norms. […]

Through the power of storytelling, he says, Hollywood can demonstrate the impact of distracted driving through fictional narrative programming. By implanting scenes and story lines into popular shows, the general public will better absorb the message and in turn, says Winsten, it will shape driving behaviors. ‘A storyline can play out, and it’s not simply just a reference of distracted driving, it can [be] part of the storyline for certain characters and gives the writers a new plot line,’ he says. […]

‘People are engaged in the storylines of shows, so [the message] is integrated in a deeper way,’ he says.

Winsten got the idea for this new project because of the success he had in the late 1980s with the “designated drivers” campaign, as Annear writes. The professor was the one who initiated it, by meeting with more than 150 producers and writers and asking them to have their show’s characters use the term “designated driver.”

Annear writes: “Nothing can begin to rival and make an impact than when people identify with characters and that enormous potential for shaping social norms,” Winsten says, which was done by putting the words in the mouths of peoples’ favorite TV celebrities.

For example, “Loverboyd” — the March 29, 1990, episode in season 8 of “Cheers” — starts off with Norm (George Wendt) chosen as the bar’s designated driver for the evening, according to IMDB.com. And here is a quote from that episode:

[Designated driver Norm returns to the bar]

Norm: Beer please.

[Sam slides a beer to Norm, but Carla intercepts it]

Carla: Sorry, Norm. Until the night is over, you’re still our designated driver.

Norm: I know that and you know that, but did you have to call every bar in town and tell them?

More than 160 television episodes of such prime time shows as “Cheers” and “The Cosby Show” used the term in their storylines. Winsten said that “designated driver” made it into the dictionary four years into the project, and polls showed it had changed behavior, with people choosing designated drivers. He added that the designated driver campaign helped reduce drunk driving-related deaths by more than 25%, thanks to the help of advertising and groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

The Harvard Gazette notes that the new campaign will need to have different strategies because we now have a “dramatically different” media environment. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, there were fewer media outlets, and mentioning distracted driving on a handful of key broadcast shows could reach a signifiant portion of the public. But nowadays cable and satellite channels give television viewers hundreds of options, and television itself competes for people’s time with video games, social media, and news and entertainment websites.

Winsten says the mission is more difficult now, and that in addition to the multiplicity of outlets, the public’s attention span is a lot shorter. But he believes that Hollywood will still help a lot, as the Harvard Gazette reports:

‘People connect to fictional characters, and become engaged in the story lines,’ Winsten said. ‘A substantial body of research on social learning has demonstrated that the modeling of behavior through entertainment programming can strongly influence social norms and behavior.’

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