THE BLOG

Actually, It Can't Wait

Aug 21, 2013 | Updated Oct 21, 2013

If you haven't seen the Werner Herzog short documentary called From One Second To The Next, please make a note to watch it, it's an important film.

The film purposefully, thoughtfully, and accurately introduces us to both victims and perpetrators of violent deaths and profound injuries caused by texting while driving.

What perhaps is more interesting than the film is who funded it and who produced it.

Let's start with the film's funding source. This film is not part of an activist campaign put together by do-gooders. It's funded by large, powerful, and profitable U.S. telecom companies who have a problem. People are killing themselves and others while using their products. Telecommunications is a highly regulated industry whose management understands the mechanism of change is regulatory oversight.

The federal government is slow to act but the telephone companies are in their targets -- and that reasonably makes companies like AT&T, Verizon, and Sprint nervous. They are aware of research starting in 1997 that concluded that the risk of having a vehicle collision was 400 percent greater when people were talking on a cell phone, than not. This is before smart phones which enable people to read emails, text, tweet and engage in other radically dangerous behavior while driving.

In case you are wondering if it's OK to text while you drive by using voice commands, research by neuroscientist David Strayer has conclusively proven that "speech-to-text technology caused a higher level of cognitive distraction than any other activities."

If the CEO of a phone company is asked to testify at a congressional hearing, which is likely to happen as more people are killed in car crashes because of phones then alcohol, that CEO can point to this campaign and say "we take safety seriously." It is fear for their companies' profits and regulatory oversight and not concern for human life that is behind the It Can Wait Campaign and the inarguably compelling narrative of Herzog's short documentary.

This all becomes clear when you visit the link that the film resolves to. The website is designed to appeal to a younger demographic and requires a simple click acknowledging a user's pledge to never text and drive. More hopeful and proactive is that there is an app that you can download to turn off texting on your phone when your car is moving above 25 MPH, unless your device is an iPhone for which there are no apps available as part of this campaign. This reinforces the true intent of this campaign, the phone companies are interested in transferring the responsibility to their users, and increasing their reputation among legislators and not your family's safety. And why does this campaign stop at texting when the telephone companies know that emailing and even talking on a phone while driving makes you more dangerous than a drunk driver?

The film is produced by the advertising firm BBDO. The storied Madison Avenue agency that has entertained you with super bowl commercials, helped elect Ronald Reagan president and contributed to the rise in obesity and childhood diabetes by seducing young people to drink copious amounts of Pepsi as their long-time agency.

The advertising agency is interested in producing campaigns that get noticed in service of their client's marketing objectives. Werner Herzog is interested in making films about people. My interest is for the conversation to go further.

Citystreets, which I founded in 1996, as a non profit, while still working in advertising, has transitioned from pedestrian rights and advocacy to an organization for people-centric urban design and transportation solutions for safer, more livable cities. When I first started writing op-eds about transportation, I was living in NYC and pedestrian safety issues were my focus. Since then a lot of positive changes came to NYC, and I moved to Los Angeles for graduate school where I became entrenched in the driving culture. As my transportation thinking evolved, along with others at Citystreets we have set a goal to help significantly reduce the number of deaths and injuries on our country's roads each year.

We all admire the attention BBDO and Werner Herzog's film are bringing to the dangers of texting and driving, but the motivation for the spots that were commissioned from Mr. Herzog and he turned into a compelling short film is incomplete; so much so that it reminds me why I started Citystreets, and why my cohort Ethan Ruby and I speak together about transportation and safe driving issues to young people, and begs the launch to a new campaign where we ask media professionals and car companies to take responsibility for their part in what's happening on our streets and roadways.

From Citystreets' perspective texting while driving is not the root issue at play, rather the mentality, perhaps the over-confident or absent mindedness of even the most skilled drivers that leads to dangerous behavior like texting or emailing behind the wheel. So what's at the root of that routine carelessness? That's the question we posed for ourselves and went on to theorize a connection between the 32,885 deaths plus countless injuries due to crashes on our nation's roads last year, and the culture of dangerous driving as depicted in car commercials.

We have a more detailed pledge that users can opt into on our site than what you'll see on itcanwait.com; ours is a personal safe driving pledge that we hope insurance companies will meet with rewards for their safe driving customers in the future.

Our campaign is tagged SAFE IS GOOD and asks individuals, car companies, and media professionals to take responsibility and actively participate in the effort reduce road deaths and injuries in our country.

Specifically, Citystreets is asking for those involved in the marketing of cars to take a pledge in the name of road safety to stop producing images that encourage dangerous and aggressive driving, and for car companies to stop commissioning such advertising.

A good start would be BBDO and all the people involved with this corporate campaign against texting. Because, while a national conversation about road safety to reduce the 32,885 thousands Americans killed on our roads and highways each year is long over due, the conversation needs to go much further than texting. It's time to start addressing the flaw in a society that first promotes then tolerates dangerous driving behavior. This is a conversation that can't wait.

Follow Harris Silver on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ourcitystreets