Text and Drive, You Die. Drink and Drive, You… Lose Your License?

A brief look at the messaging behind traffic safety PSAs

(Image/James Palinsad)

Drunk driving is bad. That should go without saying. But I’m willing to bet that many of us have done it more times than we care to admit (buzzed driving is drunk driving, folks). I can name at least a handful of times I’ve parked in front of my house and thought, “Huh, I probably shouldn’t have driven home.” And I don’t say that jokingly.

According to the CDC, “10,265 people died in alcohol-impaired driving crashes in 2015.” That’s nearly 29% of all traffic-related deaths in the United States.

And here’s how the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) positions its anti-drunk driving efforts:

(Screenshot from https://one.nhtsa.gov/drivesober)

Now, let’s take a look at texting while driving.

According to Distraction.gov, the ‘Official U.S. Government Website for Distracted Driving,’ nearly 3,500 people were killed in motor vehicle accidents involving distracted drivers in 2015. Some — but not all — of those deaths can be attributed to an increasingly common problem, especially among younger people: texting while driving.

Here’s the NHTSA’s popular billboard/PSA to prevent texting while driving:


Notice the difference? The key takeaway for the texting while driving PSA is that if you text and drive, you can DIE. The drunk driving PSA’s main takeaway is that you can get pulled over — and if you do, you’re fucked. Not that you can crash your car and injure/kill yourself and others. Not that you’re putting everyone in your vehicle, on the road, and even pedestrians at risk when you get behind the wheel drunk.

So, I beg the question:

Why doesn’t the far deadlier “epidemic” that kills 3x the amount of people deserve a serious warning?

Knowing your audience

A simple answer might be that the NHTSA is addressing the pain points of its audience.

Personally, I’m more worried about being pulled over on the way home from the bar than I am about getting into an accident. But if I ever pick up my phone while behind the wheel, my #1 concern is losing control of my car and killing myself or someone else.

In fact, I’d go as far as saying it’s safer to drive buzzed than to text from behind the wheel. Should you do either? Absolutely not. But perhaps there’s actual logic behind why these two similar PSAs are communicated so differently.

Distracted driving is the quickest growing cause of traffic fatalities, and we must also take age into account. Of course, texting while driving is an issue that organizations, parents, and pretty much anyone on the road wants to hammer home for newer drivers. Smartphones have become another appendage for teens, so the harshness of the messaging makes sense: Better left unread than dead.

But then who, I ask, is the audience for drunk driving PSAs? Is it older, working adults with responsibilities and shit? People who would see it as a major inconvenience to get pulled over on the way home from a work function and not be able to drive to the office for the next 6–9 months? People who are more reluctant to deal with cops than to die or kill someone else?

Just a few thoughts from a copywriter

Let’s break it down from a copywriting perspective. (This is assuming the NHTSA hired/used a seasoned copywriter to create these slogans, rather than just designing an entire PSA campaign off of some clever-sounding tagline Doug the budget analyst came up with.)

Left: NHTSA’s slogan for drunk driving. Right: NHTSA’s slogan for texting and driving.

The texting while driving PSA (right) is pretty good. It plays directly on our need for instant gratification, similar to USAA and AT&T’s It Can Wait campaign. When you see the messages app icon with the “7” unread messages badge, the first thing you want to do is click it and read those shits so that “7” goes away. In the NHTSA PSA, there’s a good reason the word DEAD is the same color as that notification badge.

Other pros: it rhymes, it’s catchy, and it’s powerful. The slogan gets straight to the point, and though the URL stoptextsstopwrecks.org is a little much, it gets the job done.

The best thing I can say about Drive sober or get pulled over is that it rhymes. Honestly, it doesn’t even make sense because you can also get pulled over sober.

So, NHTSA, if you want your line to stay catchy but also powerful, here’s an idea:

Drive sober or it’s over.

It’s over can mean whatever the reader wants it to mean. Maybe you’ll crash and die. Maybe you’ll kill someone and go to jail forever (as you should). Maybe you’ll get pulled over, and you’ll lose your license and your job because you can’t get to work. Maybe your girlfriend will break up with you because she’s tired of driving your deadbeat ass around all the time.

While I’ll admit that — when I’m driving after two or more beers — my primary concern is getting stopped by cops instead of hurting anyone, we have to look at the facts. And the facts tell us that drunk driving is more deadly than texting while driving, so we should treat it that way.

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