Distracted driving, defined as an activity that reduces the driver’s attention away from the road, has become one of the nation’s biggest issues over the last decade. The National Safety Council estimates that 28% of all traffic accidents are caused by inattention due to cell phone use (1). Recent studies have shown that cell phone use while operating a vehicle is the equivalent to having a blood alcohol level above 0.08% when it comes to driver response to an emergency situation (2). Most notably, texting and driving has been at the forefront of the issue because texting requires the visual, manual, and cognitive attention of the driver (3). In another study drivers who send texts are four times more likely to be in an accident compared to drivers not using their cell phone (4).
Despite knowing the dangers of texting while driving, research has shown that 75% or more of drivers admitted to cell phone use while driving (5). Among the drivers that text, 80% of young drivers acknowledge that texting while driving is dangerous, and yet a third of the drivers surveyed admitted to texting while driving in the past month (6). It was also revealed that even during hazardous road conditions, young drivers are more likely than older drivers to continue texting while driving.
The issue of texting while driving has become so great that it has been labeled as an epidemic in the U.S. causing 41 states to enact statutes that ban texting while driving (7). While outlawing texting may seem like the right approach to the issue, studies have suggested that the number accidents caused by texting while driving has not decreased with any significance. In fact, these laws may be exacerbating the problem; because of the bans, drivers are lowering the height at which they hold their phones so as to remove it out of sight to prevent getting caught. (8)
In response to the growing concern of texting while driving among the youth, the NHTSA has launched the first federally funded national campaign in April of this year. In the first of several television ads of the campaign, the ad shows three young people having a good time while in a car together. The young female driver takes her eyes off the road to answer a text message and runs through a stop sign. Crossing the same intersection, a truck t-bones the car from the side. The ad then gives a slow motion view of what is occurring inside the car as it flips over multiple times. We see the windows shattering, the driver’s and passengers’ heads snapping back and forth, and objects in the car thrown about. We then see a police officer investigating the deadly accident. Directly towards the viewing audience, the officer states, "Nobody likes to be stopped by the police. But if I'd seen her texting and driving, and given her a ticket, it just might have saved her life." The ad then displays the catchphrase: U Drive U Text U Pay. While the campaign is relatively new and its impact on the issue of texting and driving unknown, the first released ad of the campaign suggests a flawed public health intervention because it applies the principles of the wrong social and behavioral models, it uses fear to intimidate its viewers, and finally, the advertisement fails to provide a clear and accurate message
Flaw #1: NHTSA applies the Health Belief Model to its anti-texting campaign
The anti-texting campaign launched by the NHTSA follows the well-regarded Health Belief Model. The Health Belief Model (HBM) was developed to explain and predict behaviors associated with health. The HBM suggests that the engagement or lack of engagement of a positive health behavior are the result of people’s perceived severity of and susceptibility to a health problem, barriers to and benefits of taking action, and self-efficacy (9). The HBM theorizes that people’s decisions are simply a weighing act, where people will behave in a certain way only if a particular behavior will result in an outcome they value (9). The NHTSA anti-texting campaign follows this widely-used model. However, in the wrong context, the HBM can be inappropriately applied.
The HBM assumes that people behave rationally; their decisions and behaviors are based on logic, not emotion. However, people simply do not behave as logically and rationally as expected by the HBM. According to several studies published from 1992 to 2009, the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program, which was developed based on the principles of the HBM, failed to significantly reduce drug usage in elementary and middle schools across the U.S. The strategy used by the DARE program was based on educating the students about the health-related consequences of drug use and the benefits of avoiding this dangerous activity (10). Unfortunately, the program failed to yield any positive results. In certain student populations, the DARE program had the opposite effect; drug abuse rates increased instead of decreased. (10).
Previous anti-texting campaigns have also employed the HBM as its basis to prevent texting while driving. Similar to the DARE program, those previous anti-texting campaigns have failed to have a positive impact. The recently launched anti-texting campaign by the NHTSA has failed to learn from the mistakes of past campaigns. In a survey conducted by Kareklas and Muehling (2013), the authors found that young drivers fully understand the negative consequences of such behavior and yet continue to text while driving; they rationalized that they were able to maintain complete control of their car while texting (11). Specifically, many of the participants responded that their skill levels were high enough to allow them to perform both activities at the same time. Based on these survey results, the NHTSA should not launch a campaign based on educating young drivers about the dangers of texting while driving or the benefits of putting away the cell phone. Distracted driving is a main component in drivers ed programs, but drivers still choose to text while driving. Quite simply, young drivers perceive that the risk of getting into an accident is low for them. They are constantly bombarded about the hazards of texting while driving, and yet, through their perspective, their perceived cost of putting down the cell phone outweighs the benefits. The theory of optimistic bias and the invincibility theory may help to explain this phenomenon. The optimistic bias suggests that a person unrealistically believes they have low risk of experiencing a negative situation when compared to others (12). While the invincibility theory suggests that despite knowing the dangers of a possible event, the chance of death will not even cross the students because they see themselves as invincible (13). Thus, it would be beneficial that the NHTSA build its anti-texting campaign based not on the principles of the HBM but on the idea of changing the behavior itself.
Social Networking Theory and the Diffusions of Innovations theory may provide a better foundation for the anti-texting campaign. The main premise of both the Social Networking Theory and the Diffusions of Innovations theory is that past a certain point, the adoption of a behavior or innovation will greatly escalate through a domino effect (14-15). The assertion of these two theories may provide a better foundation for the campaign to build upon. As the behavior of interest is changed, the attitude towards it will change as well. This will be expanded later on.
Flaw #2: The NHTSA uses fear to induce behavioral change in young drivers
The anti-texting campaign uses fear as a way to motivate its viewers. The catchphrases, “U Drive U Text U Pay” and the video of a violent car crash will only scare the population. Sowing fear among the young drivers that are watching this advertisement is not an effective tool for the promotion of a positive behavior. A study conducted by Lewis, Watson, and White (2010) in persuasive messaging on speeding behaviors showed that ad-evoked fear and anxiousness had a major impact on both the acceptance and rejection of anti-speeding messages (16). In a similar study, Lennon, Rentfro, and O’Leary (2010) designed fear-based public service announcements in order to discourage distracted driving. Subjects who watched the PSAs reported a greater likelihood of engaging in distracted driving (17). These studies suggest fear-based appeals are inappropriate and inconsistent in attaining the desired behavioral changes.
In an analysis conducted by Kareklas and Muehling (2013), the researchers found that the use of fear-based appeals in public health interventions produced interesting results. Participants were exposed to four public service announcements that contained an image of a driver texting while driving, a headline stating, “Texting While Driving: A Dangerous Combination,” and a brief note at the bottom of the image, “Please don’t text and drive.” The only difference was that each image contained a more profound mortality salience cue then the one before.
Their results suggested that the images with strongest mortality salience primes yielded high levels of perceived severity and susceptibility (11), which falls in line with the Health Belief Model. However, there is the question of high or low self-efficacy. The researchers found that when shown PSAs aimed at discouraging texting while driving, participants with a habit of texting while driving perceive low self-efficacy. They theorize that the fear-based PSAs caused those participants to deny or rationalize their texting behavior - invincibility theory and optimistic bias (11). Now where does the NHTSA anti-texting campaign come into play? Because the anti-texting campaign is targeted towards young drivers with low-self-efficacy, then a strong fear-based appeal by the NHTSA, will only lead to unintended reactions and behaviors.
Instead of using fear as the defining element in their advertisements, the NHTSA should look in to the principles of Marketing Theory. By applying Marketing Theory to its campaign, the NHTSA should be able to appeal to the aspirations of young drivers, which will be discussed later on.
Flaw #3: The advertisements convey forceful messages to the viewers
When forceful messages that threaten the behavioral freedoms of the viewers are expressed, the Theory of Psychological Reactance must be considered. The Theory of Psychological Reactance suggests that people will adopt the position that is opposite of the specific mindset that is being forced upon them. (18). This “persuasion” is often seen as manipulative by the viewer.
When the behavioral freedoms of the public are threatened by the forceful messages of a public health campaign, the public simply strengthen that behavior. An example of this is described in the Brehm and Weintraub (1977) study. Two year-old children were presented with two attractive toys. One toy was placed in the open while the other was placed behind a plexiglass barrier. For the first group of children the barrier was short enough that the barrier could be easily climbed over. For the second group, the barrier was too high to climb. The researchers investigated how often the children would go for the two toys under the different circumstances. For the first group with the low barrier, they showed no preference when going for the toys (19). However, in second group, most of the children went directly to the toy with the high plexiglass barrier (19).
Furthermore Driscoll, Davis, and Lipetz (1972) were able to illustrate the same psychological effects. In their study, they interviewed 140 couples. The researchers discovered that high levels of parental interference in a couple’s relationship lead to greater expression of love and serious marriage considerations compared to couples that experienced low levels of parental interference (20).
In addition, statutory laws banning texting while driving may actually be having the opposite effect. While statutory laws might seem to be an appropriate approach for addressing the texting epidemic, a study published by the Highway Data Loss Institute (2010) suggests that texting bans may actually be increasing the risk of accidents. To keep their phones out of sight, drivers are holding their phones even lower when texting to prevent themselves from getting caught (8).
Similar to the public health interventions mentioned earlier, the NHTSA’s anti-texting campaign does not factor in the Theory of Psychological Reactance. Instead, the campaign relies on forceful language like the catchphrase “U Drive U Text U Pay” to promote a healthy behavior. If the public perceive the message of the advertisement to be biased, or believe the sponsor of the advertisement is attempting to unduly persuade them via manipulative means, they may react adversely, which could hinder message acceptance. Reactance to a problem that has been deemed an epidemic would most definitely be considered a failure of the campaign. However, instead of threatening the freedoms of the public, the campaign should instead advertise a desire of the public that fulfills their wants and needs. The strategy of incorporating Advertising Theory into the anti-texting campaign will be looked at later on.
Incorporating Alternative Strategies into the Anti-texting Campaign
The new anti-texting campaign of the NHTSA fails to take into account the appropriate social and behavioral theories and models. Analysis of the currently used theories and models suggest that the campaign will not achieve its main objective: reducing texting while driving among the youth. However, by applying the alternative social and behavioral theories and models, the campaign can be turned into an effective anti-texting intervention.
Three significant changes can be made to improve upon the NHTSA’s current anti-texting campaign. The first is to change the behavior of the targeted population. According to the Social Expectation Theory, if the behavior of the population can be changed then the attitude of a social norm can be changed as well. Second, instead of basing their advertisements on the emotion of fear, the NHTSA should apply the principals of marketing theory. The NHTSA, through their advertisements, should attempt to appeal to the wants and needs of their target audience. Lastly, instead of having the target audience perceive that their freedoms are being taken away, the NHTSA should instead reaffirm their freedoms by framing there anti-texting campaign in positive light.
Alternative #1: Changing the behavior, changes the norm
The current anti-texting campaign is built around the principles of the Health Belief Model, in that educating young drivers about the dangers of texting while driving will prevent car accidents from occurring. However, in the examples provided where public health interventions were based on the HBM, the results of the interventions simply did not live up to expectations. The current NHTSA campaign fails to take into account the irrationality of young drivers. Specifically, it does not account for the fact that young drivers perceive the risk of crash is lower for them when compared to others. The Diffusion of Innovations theory seeks to explain how, why, and at what rate a new behavior is adopted. The theory presents categories of people based upon the timing of the adoption of a behavior: innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority, and laggards (21). In order for a behavior to be self-sustaining, it must be widely adopted to the point where the rate of adoption reaches an inflection point (21).
The NHTSA should seek young drivers to take a pledge of no texting while driving, thereby creating an identity for drivers to associate with. The main premise of the pledge would be that, “I am my own individual. I dictate my own choices, and I choose to not text and drive.” Essentially, pledge-takers are rebelling against the current norm of texting while driving, of needing to check their phone every minute, and of needing to be constantly connected to their friends because it’s the “social” thing to do. It can also come to mean that drivers who take the pledge understand no text is important enough to risk the life of oneself or others. However, for this to work, the rate of adoption must be high enough to reach the inflection point.
Now the question is how to reach that inflection point? The NHTSA should turn to the Social Networking theory. The premise of Social Networking theory is that a social network is made up of a set of social actors like individuals and organizations, and that these actors are all connected in some way (14). Through their interactions, behavior can be spread throughout the network. All that is necessary is to identify the key actors and intervene on their connections. Once these key actors have adopted a behavior (or in this case, taken a pledge), the behavior will spread outward. Individuals in the network of the key actor will adopt the same behavior. The behavior will then continue to spread in this pattern. Thus, it would be beneficial for NHTSA to have high profile celebrities to endorse the pledge; high profile celebrities have major followings in social media. Jenny McCarthy is an excellent example of a celebrity using her high profile status to champion her beliefs. Jenny McCarthy is credited of leading the anti-vaccine movement (22). Her high profile anti-vaccine campaign has sparked a large following of parents to reject vaccines for their children and to dispute peer-reviewed scientific studies on the safety and efficacy of vaccines. While Jenny McCarthy has distanced herself from the anti-vaccine movement recently, the movement continues to grow as reports of preventable infectious disease outbreaks in schoolchildren continue to grow in the U.S. The NHTSA should similarly have high profile celebrities endorse their anti-texting campaign. Like the anti-vaccine movement, the pledge-taking should eventually sustain itself once the rate of adoption is past the inflection point.
Alternative #2: Market an identity relatable to young drivers
Instead of fear-based advertisements, the NHTSA should market the desired behavioral changes in a way that is narrowly tailored and appealing to young drivers. The message should be narrowly tailored to the needs and wants of young drivers. The message should also appeal to the popular media channels that are frequented by young drivers.
In Mexico City, Social Marketing Theory was found to be effective in promoting attitudes that favor anti-smoking laws, helping to establish a smoke-free culture in the city (23). One month before the implementation of the smoke-free legislation, the Mexico City Ministry of Health and civil organizations embarked on a social marketing campaign in order to inform the public on the health effects of secondhand smoke and the upcoming smoke-free law. The campaign utilized television and radio spots, as well as print media such as pamphlets, newspapers, and billboards. Through culturally sensitive branding and attention grabbing catchphrases, the campaign was able to tailor its message to the citizens of Mexico City through the proper media channels (23).
The same concepts of Social Marketing Theory can be applied to the NHTSA’s anti-texting campaign. First, the campaign should appeal to the aspirations of young drivers. But what are their aspirations? What do they strive for? These must be considered in order to build an effective campaign. Most commonly, young people strive for identity, independence, and freedom. The current campaign does not offer any of those aspirations. However building upon the idea of taking a pledge to not text and drive and in keeping with the rebellious tone mentioned earlier, the NHTSA can use that pledge-taking initiative and build an identity round it for young drivers to associate with. The identity should be associated with freedom and independence and reject the current texting norms of the youth, such as having to check their phones every minute to feel connected and feeling pressured to immediately reply to their text messages. The NHTSA should advertise their pledge through television ads, radio stations, and social media websites that are popular with the youth. All the advertisements should be consistent the themes of freedom and independence and they should be expressed in the context of having fun and enjoying life. Advertisements like these would more likely attract the attention of young people than an advertisement that depicts violent crashes and law enforcement officials.
Alternative #3: Advertise the idea that freedom equals putting away the cell phone
Instead of inducing psychological reactance by threatening the freedoms of the target group, the campaign should focus on giving the population something that they desire. At the core of Advertising theory are three concepts: 1) every effective advertisement makes a promise to the consumer by making an emotional appeal, 2) the promise must be supported properly, and 3) core values must underlie the promise and support (24).
The NHTSA, in their advertisements, should make the promise that would appeal to young drivers. The advertisement should promise that the viewers will feel a particular way if they adopt the behavior that is advertised. Building upon earlier ideas, the promise should be that if you put away your cell phones while driving, you will maintain your freedom and enjoy life. This promise can be supported by showing short video advertisement of a group of friends on a cross country road trip. We see them drive through roads with beautiful natural scenery. Along the way, we see them visit fun and joyous places. While resting at the last stop of the trip, a small hill overlooking a white sandy beach, we see the sun is starting to set and the ocean reflecting the red, orange, purple, and blue colors of the sky. The driver goes to the trunk of the car. From her bag, she pulls out her cell phone and walks to the front of the car, where her friends are. She sits on the front edge of the hood, turns on her phone, and proceeds to send a text. She types in the message, “Hey mom, just arrived at the last stop.” The mom replies, “How was the trip?” She replies, “Awesome.” The camera then fades out and the televisions screen subsequently displays a distinct and powerful phrase that reaffirms the core values: “Freedom, where will it take you?” Essentially, the video implies that by putting down the cell phone, you can go on an amazing journey with your friends as well.
By applying Advertising Theory, the NHTSA focuses on the needs and wants of young drivers, through the promise of freedom and the enjoyment of life on an amazing road trip as long as they adopt a certain behavior. Focusing on these concepts of Advertising Theory, the campaign will encourage young drivers to embark on their own special journeys. This strategy will surely elicit a more positive response than the forceful messages used such as “U Drive U Text U Pay”, helping to avoid psychological reactance.
The NHTSA’s anti-texting campaign has much potential in persuading young drivers to stop texting while driving. This can only be done if the campaign incorporates theories and models such as the Diffusion of Innovations Theory, Advertising Theory, and Social Marketing Theory. Violent graphics and forceful and intimidating messages simply do not appeal to the youth. However, a campaign built on the aspirations and empowerment of the youth is the right way of convincing an entire generation of drivers to put down their cell phones when they get behind the wheel.
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