Personal Health

A New Traffic Safety Campaign Aims to Curb Drunk Driving in the Big Apple

The program 'You The Man' targets those most likely to get behind the wheel and drive drunk: young men between the ages of 21 and 39.

New York City is notorious for its brutal traffic and rude drivers. Despite this reputation, New York is becoming increasingly safer for drivers, cyclists and pedestrians. Bike lanes, pedestrian zones and user-friendly crossing signals represent some of the changes that are creating a more civilized urban environment. The year 2009 saw only 256 traffic deaths-- the lowest occurrence in city history.  

At least 10 percent of these deaths involved alcohol. While nationally drunk driving caused 32 percent of road fatalities, or nearly 12,000 people, even double-digit figures are hard statistics to swallow in this particular city.
 
Janette Sadik-Khan, Commissioner of the Department of Transportation, explains the reasoning behind renewed efforts to curb drunk driving. “As I like to say, there are some 100,000 designated drivers on the streets of New York, and that would be the city’s taxi and livery car drivers. And that’s on top of the thousands of bus drivers and subway operators who already give people a safe lift home at the end of the night.  But people will still drink and drive, so what we're trying to do is to really focus on celebrating each and every designated driver in the city.”
 
A program called "You The Man" is the first segment of a traffic safety campaign aimed at alcohol-related accidents, which numbered over 1,000 in 2008. Designing the program required some strategic thinking. The people most likely to get behind the wheel drunk, males between the ages of 21 and 39, are also least likely to heed a traditional public service announcement. “This particular demographic hates being told what to do,"
explained Sadik-Khan. "They feel like they are being bossed around by their bosses, by their mates, by the government." The slogan "You The Man," a light-hearted shout-out to young men across the five boroughs,tested well across racial and socioeconomic lines.
 
Director of Strategic Communications Dani Simons knew that improving the current statistics would require a radically different approach. “The Ad Council started a drinking and driving campaign in 1983, and they’ve been running it pretty much continuously since then. But you know people are still drinking and driving. So one of the first things I did was ask myself what can we possibly add to this conversation."  Simons found inspiration in a
Wisconsin program created by Michael Rothschild called "Road Crew." The program was launched in 2000 to address annual drunk driving numbers that remained stubbornly high statewide.  
 
“What they found was that guys knew [driving drunk] was wrong...but if they called a cab or something to go home, they would be ten, fifteen, twenty miles away from the bar in the morning and they needed their car to get to work. And they had no way to get back to that car. So for them, it was worth it just to take a chance and drive home at the end of the night. Michael realized that no amount of marketing or advertising was going to convince guys to do this differently.”  
 
Rothschild instead instituted a car service that transports patrons to any number of bars throughout the night for a flat fee of $20. Simons appreciated the program’s ability to eliminate the barrier preventing people from “doing what they already want to do.”  In New York City, people are less concerned about being able to get to work or get to their car than they are about waiting an hour for a bus, the vagaries of weekend subway service or wandering around in potentially dangerous neighborhoods late at night. You The Man’s Find a Ride feature makes it that much easier for anyone with a smartphone to punch in their zip code and pull up the number of the nearest car service.  
 
Internet technology and social networking systems play a crucial role in getting the message across to young men. “Males in this demographic are the hardest to reach. You cannot use traditional advertising,” says Susan Palombo of Ready 366, the marketing firm hired to handle advertising for the Department of Transportation’s campaigns. “The digital technology enabled us to be more present when they’re in that process and to do that in a way that was really authentic to the experience that they were having.” In addition to a Facebook group, the campaign offers a Web site, with a quiz and a tongue-in-cheek video promoting the designated driver as the hero of a successful night out and, by extension, New York City streets.
 
Simons tried to find a tactful way to explain that men who tend to be designated drivers tested as having less social clout than the drinkers in their group, making Designated Driver a less-than-glamorous title. 
 
Driving drunk was reframed as being at the far end of a continuum of embarrassing and regrettable behavior, which the sober friend in a group of drinkers can help their companions avoid, acting as wing man. Maybe the average young man doesn’t care to think about ending the night hurtling through a windshield during a high-speed collision, but who couldn’t use a friend to keep them from drinking-and-dialing or climbing onstage to perform an embarrassing karaoke number? The Designated Driver is this man: The Man.
 
Another challenge lies in encouraging people to exercise good judgement even when their judgement has been impaired. Ads that play on radio stations from Thursday through Saturday night between the hours of 5 and 9pm -- what Simons calls “pre-party time” -- as well as ads on Evite, Club Planet and Google searches for bars and clubs provide consistent reminders that anyone planning a night out drinking should include a safe ride home in their agenda.
 
The campaign, launched during Super Bowl weekend and still in its infancy, will expand its reach to include mobile phone ads and more consumer-created content.  
 
In addition to these upcoming initiatives, the Department of Transportation might consider forging a stronger alliance with bar owners and bartenders. Poster visibility was limited or nil in an environment where wall space is traditionally devoted to mirrors or thematic decor and posters advertising concerts, sporting events and fundraisers vie for attention.
 
Bartenders were 100 percent in favor of designating a driver, but all deferred to the bar managers for information about You The Man. And managers weren’t usually in on the weekends, when peak drinking hours take place.
 
One manager seemed a bit hazy upon hearing about You The Man, and only remembered the coasters in connection with “some Heineken promotion” (Heineken teamed up with the DOT as a sponsor). “The coasters were a big hit!” Only, his patrons, at Puck Fair, apparently didn’t take much note of the message on the reverse side of their coaster that encourages them to Be the Man. Be the Designated Driver. “They just said ‘Yeah!  I’m the man!’  And kept drinking,” he admitted. 
 
Triona McCloskey, who owns the Pinch near Washington Square, expressed enthusiasm about the idea. “Designated drivers can drink free here all night-- non-alcoholic beverages, of course!”  But she said that since she caters primarily to the New York University crowd, she doesn’t see many patrons driving to the bar. “They love the coasters,” she added.
 
As Palombo stressed, this is a “very targeted” campaign, making use of a budget of less than $1 million to hit its young male target demographic where they live.
 
The conditions under which 11-year-old Leandra Rosado met her death at the hands of a drunk driver at the end of 2009 make a case for expanding the program beyond its current parameters. 
 
Leandra, 11, was thrown from a car being driven by Carmen Huertas, the mother of one of her friends. Huertas took her daughter, Leandra, and five other girls to a party where she had several drinks. She then piled the seven girls in the car for the trip home to the Bronx. Speeding, she lost control and crashed into a guardrail on the Henry Hudson Parkway.  
 
Leandra’s father, Lenny Rosado, believes the accident could have been prevented by the kind of responsible friendship championed by You the Man. “Everyone goes to certain social gatherings—a wedding, a party, a christening or somebody’s graduation, and in that case it was a family party.  If the person came to the event in a car, you saw them drinking: you should have a designated driver. So then that designated driver takes charge, takes control. Says ‘Okay, I got the keys, I drive. You can’t drive.’”
 
Rosado, who successfully lobbied the state of New York to implement Leandra’s Law, also proposed another sensible targeted campaign. “A lot of people I know who have had a long week—mostly on Fridays—take their paychecks, go to the bars, have quite a few drinks and then get behind the wheel and head home thinking ‘Hey it’s Friday, the beginning of the weekend, I had my drinks!’  If it’s Friday and it’s your day to get paid and get a drink, leave your car at home!”