Putting the brakes on distracted driving

2 min read

April is National Distracted Driving Awareness Month. Jay Winsten is the Frank Stanton Director of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s Center for Health Communication and associate dean for health communication, which recently celebrated its 30th anniversary. He talks about the Center’s newest initiative: a campaign to prevent injuries and fatalities caused by “distracted driving,” which encompasses not only the use of smart phones while behind the wheel but also a broad array of other distractions.

A number of organizations and government agencies have produced graphic online videos highlighting the dangers of distracted driving. What will be different about this campaign?

The efforts to date have relied on a negative “don’t” message. While successful in raising public awareness of the problem—a crucial first step—these initiatives have not resulted in large-scale behavior change. In surveys, large majorities acknowledge that the problem is a serious one. However, they reject the idea that they themselves are at risk of causing a distracted driving crash, because they believe they have excellent multi-tasking skills. So, they watch with rapt attention the graphic videos of reenacted crashes, but they dismiss the message because they think, “That’s not me.”

At the same time, however, surveys have found that a large majority of people are fearful of becoming a victim of a distracted driving crash caused by someone else. In a recent survey conducted by Allstate, 46% of young adults said that, as a result of that fear, they tend to drive “defensively.”